SUMMIT, NJ - Universal, Free Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) in Summit moved one giant step closer to reality as the Summit Board of Education (BOE) approved -- by a 6-1 vote -- its $65.89 million 2019-20 budget with $1.5 million earmarked for the program. Board President Deb McCann was the lone dissenter.   

If the Board of School Estimate (BOSE) approves the budget at its March 25 meeting, then FDK will begin this coming September.  

The marathon, occasionally-raucous, three-plus hour evening on March 7 began with a meeting of the BOSE where Superintendent June Chang and Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe presented the budget, followed by a meeting of the Board of Education with extended comments from dozens of the several hundred community members present.   

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Chang and Pepe’s budget presentation was an updated version of the one they gave at the February BOE meeting.  

Besides passionate comments both for and against FDK, concern over elementary school class sizes charged the discussion.

The final budget was actually less than the preliminary one that was presented at the February BOE meeting, as state aid figures, which were released just hours before the meeting, and “breakage” reduced the budget by $277,136.

State aid came in at $2,567,656, which is $252,592 greater than last year.  The preliminary budget was based on an assumed flat state-aid figure.

It is expected that there will be a $137.92 annual increased tax impact on the average home assessed at $410,000.

Pepe gave another history on state aid and the impact it has had on the budget. Back in 2009-10, Summit received $2,587,433 which was reduced to $0 the following year. Since then, the number has been slowly climbing back up, growing from $1,195,623 to $1,815,901 between 2010 - 2018. The largest jump was seen last year, when the District received $2,315,064.

“Each year we stepped back up, but it’s not what we received in the past,” he said.  

Pepe said that over the past decade over $10 million in state aid has been lost.  Even with the increase, this year’s number is still $20,000 shy of what the district received 10 years ago.  

Breakage -- when senior teachers retire at a higher salary than the junior teachers who replace them -- reduced instruction costs from $600,000 to $512,000.

Pepe explained the concept of a “banked cap” in layman’s terms because, as he said, he is “the only one who understands it.” He compared it to a credit card company raising your credit limit.  “It’s spending authority,” he said.

Banked cap is not money in the bank, but it is the ability to raise future taxes if needed, and it is only accumulated for three years before it “falls off.” Cap is acquired when you do not spend the full two percent allowable by the state, so banked cap lets you raise taxes over two percent in future years.

Over the past 10 years, he said, Summit has accumulated $10.8 million in banked cap, $8.3 million of that “fell off,” meaning that it was not used.

“Had the Board approved each year’s budget at the two percent cap, we would have levied  $10.8 million more in levied taxes over that 10-year period,” Pepe said.

“Now,” Pepe said, “We need to utilize some of that banked cap.”

This budget utilizes $608,750 in banked cap.

McCann asked about impacts on future budgets with the ever-looming possibility of state-aid reductions.

“We are always concerned going into any budget season; we’re keeping an eye on our biggest movers which are teacher benefits and salaries,” Chang said, “I think we’ll be pretty consistent.”

Pepe said that one of the biggest concerns he has is continuing to find efficiencies in the budget that will net significant savings.

“We’ve already found all the low-hanging fruit,” he said.  He mentioned energy, health-care provider changes, leasing, printing, and other operational efficiencies that were found.

He discussed the importance of ensuring that the District provides competitive teacher salaries.

“It’s not only about attracting, but retaining top talent. We don’t want the best and the brightest to go to neighboring districts,” he said.

He said that in future years, FDK will be part of the base budget, subject to the two percent cap.

Universal, Free Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK)

Chang reiterated why FDK “made sense” for Summit.

It provides equal access to the first step in our educational program for the earliest learners, he said, because teachers have more time to get to know students and identify and address their learning challenges and identify strengths.

“FDK prepares students for the rigor of early-elementary school programing,” Chang said.

He said that participation in the current tuition-based FDK program has increased 300 percent in the five years it has existed.

He said that 84 percent of the students are in the current FDK program and 100 percent of students transferring into first grade have been enrolled in a FDK program.

“This budget is about meeting the demands of a changing world,” he said.  “The demands on our students change; there should be equitable access for all.”

Because it was a special budget meeting, the agenda was limited to the budget and all comments were budget related, falling into two discussion areas -- the addition of the FDK program to the budget and the concern over class size.  

A strict three-minute time limit was given to each of the more than 40 community members who came to the microphone.  Many said that they were planning to speak about FDK, but changed their comments to give input on class size once they heard about the issue.

Those who spoke about FDK shared opinions that echoed those presented at past Board meetings.

Comments Opposing FDK

Those expressing their opposition to the program focused on the increased tax burden and the lack of concrete evidence proving  that a FDK program has any real, long-term benefit for students.

Former City Councilman Tom Getzendanner said, “Exceeding the two percent CAP for no emergency purpose is sheer folly; Summit already offers FDK that far exceeds NJ ‘compulsory’ education standard--voluntarily turning this break-even program into a $1.5 million line item misreads taxpayers.”

Jim Bennett said that the numbers presented do not include incremental administrative costs.

Irene Loshchert asked Chang why FDK was needed. She said there are no numbers and lots of opinions. “How will FDK be better--why do we need it,” she asked.  Chang said that he has already answered that question “multiple times.”

Karen Hadley said that children have been successful for many years with a half-day program.. “We’ve done it all without FDK,” she said.

Former Councilman Robert Rubino said that internal studies done on the success of the program “bore no fruit.”  He said that if families want more than a half-day program they should “pay up for it.”

Danielle Maloney said she does not believe that a FDK program would have changed the outcome of her children’s academic careers. “Children should have time off; they need free time,” she added.

Sue Roberts said, “Just because we have the authority to spend doesn’t mean we should.” She said that a $1.5 million program that benefits five-year-olds for two hours is “not the best use of funds.”

Steven Spurr said that there is no measurable benefit to a FDK program.

Mary Higgins said that with continued tax increases she won’t be able to afford to stay in Summit when she retires.

Current Summit Councilman Mike McTernan said that the FDK program was intended as a pilot which was to be studied.  He said that there is no proof that FDK improves reading, writing, or test scores. “Studies show no statistical improvement at all,” he said.  “If you found it, we would have heard about it.” He said that while social improvement may be worthy, “there are cheaper ways to have that type of enrichment.”

Julia Eck said that any lasting benefit of FDK “has been purely anecdotal.”  

Former Summit Board of Education Member James Freeman said that the Board should “reconsider the budget and reject FDK.”  He said that with this program, middle class families will be subsidizing families that are wealthier than they are.  

Comments Supporting FDK

Those in support of the program focused largely on the inequity of the lottery system, which leaves those who make even one dollar above the qualifying threshold for the Free and Reduced Lunch program unable to afford FDK; only 16 percent of Summit students are in the half-day classes. They also said that a tuition-based program is not appropriate for a public school system.

Amanda Parrish Block said, “I put my full faith in you. Summit is a small city with a big heart.”

Patty Schneider Smith said that Summit should not be providing an academic program that requires tuition. She said that it was important to provide time for social development.  “Students need to be outdoors and move around,” she said.

Annette Dwyer said that it was important for all children to have the same access, the same “foundational exposure.”

Andrea Stein said that if there is a need for a half-day program, “the market will provide.” She said that in Summit “we are supposed to be leaders,” and that the lottery system poses a “moral issue.”  “It breaks my heart that we are still having this conversation,” she said.

Former Board President Gloria Ron-Fornes said that the primary concern of the Board is the children. “We look to you to lead us in the realm of education,” she said. “Your role is not to lower my taxes; I support FDK -- it’s the best way to spend my tax money.”

Irve Pinzon said, “The name of the game is learning for life.”

Former Board President Michelle Stevenson cautioned those who were pitting FDK against class size. She appreciated the ability to have civil discourse. “It’s even more important than what we are talking about,” she said.

Erica Lang said that her son, who went through the half-day program, struggled with the amount of work needed to be accomplished daily.  “It’s too much information in a 2 1/2 hour period,” she said. She said that a FDK program would have allowed her son to “relax” and he would not have had as much difficulty mastering the content.

Carol Pak-Teng said that the lottery system created a community of “haves and have nots.”  She said, “Families that are struggling to put food on the table can’t even put their names into the lottery system.”

Paola Acosta said that we are “not hearing the voices” of the people below the poverty line.  She said that Summit is the “72nd richest town in America” and should provide equitable education for all.

Laura Coburn said that the current system is “unethical.” She said, “We don’t talk about fully funding first grade, or eleventh grade, or football," adding, "We have a system that’s not equal for everyone in town; I don’t believe that’s morally correct.”

Dave Gittleman said, “Lower socio-economic and ESL kids have been proven to benefit from FDK.”

Nancy Gorman said, “We’re a community; sometimes you pay for things you don’t use.”

Former Board President Celia Colbert commented on the amount of time and effort FDK has taken over the years. She said that fewer kids in a classroom makes for a better experience, and so does “giving kids more time to learn the material better.” She said, “Go forth and be the Board of EDUCATION and do the right thing.”

Abe Cosmo said, “Not everything worthy is measurable, and not everything measurable is worthy.”

Former Board President Katherine Kalin said that the debate has been going on for more than a decade, so it’s clear that it is not taken lightly. She said that the Board has saved $10.8 million because of fiscal responsibility during this time. The current system is not fair, she said. “I don’t want to be part of a city that does something not fair.”

The Vote

When it came time to vote,  Board members Peggy Wong and Chris Bonner read statements before voting.  

Wong voted yes in spite of her concern of “mixed results” on the impact of FDK.  She said she was concerned with the long-term impact.

Bonner cited the 14th Amendment and said that “all kids should be given equal opportunity.”  

“The current-tuition based system is not keeping with that,” he said. “The tuition-based lottery system is inherently unfair and I will not vote for any budget again that includes it."

Bonner also said that he has read every email that has come into the office both for and against FDK and said “there is a solid business case not to do it,” because of the tax levy, but he argued that you cannot look at it through a “simple financial lens.”

“Public education is taxpayer-funded education” he said.  

He said that Districts with a low tax burden and high-performing schools are “few and far between.”

He added that FDK is not the only driver in the budget -- salaries are up 2.8 percent and healthcare is up 5 percent,

McCann said after the meeting that she had prepared a statement, but after listening to the public discussion wanted to incorporate some of the sentiment that was shared, so she will be presenting her statement at the BOSE vote.

During the BOSE portion of the meeting, Radest explained that since Summit is a Type I District the general public does not vote on the school budget. Voting is done by the BOSE.

The BOSE is comprised of two members of the BOE -- McCann and Bonner -- and two members of Summit Common Council -- Marjorie Fox and Matt Gould -- along with Mayor Nora Radest, who will vote only in event of a tie.

The last time the Board of Education voted to approve FDK, in 2013, the proposal was vetoed 3-2 by the BOSE. Back then major facility updates of over $5 million for the Jefferson and Wilson Primary Centers would have been needed.   

In 2013, then-Mayor Ellen Dickson broke the tie voting no, with BOE members George Lucaci and Edgar Mokuvos voting for the program and Common Council members Dave Bomgaars and Robert Rubino voting against it.

Lucaci and Rubino attended this year’s Board vote.

It is expected that FDK will pass the BOSE on March 25 even if McCann votes no, as Fox and Gould have expressed strong support for the program. If so, then Radest will not need to vote.

Class Size

In the 2019-20 budget, there is a reduction of 5 sections due to enrollment.

Chang addressed the “rumors” that the decrease of class sections was “in direct correlation” to implementing FDK. He said that one had nothing to do with the other, and that as classes “go up and down” the number of grade-level sections has “shuffled” historically.

It is a “misconception” he said that the reduction of classes is related to FDK.  “This would happen regardless,” he said.

TAPinto Summit requested additional information about the proposed class changes.  

Chang told TAPinto Summit, “It has been our long-standing practice to annually evaluate enrollment in all of our elementary schools each year, and to adjust sections based on student enrollment within our Board approved guidelines. We have not gone over 25 students per class; I can assure you that class sizes are, and will be, in line with our district policy. It is a misconception that we are overcrowded. Currently, seven of our 77 classes have 24-25 students. We make sure to provide an appropriate level of resources to support these classes. Class sizes have fluctuated over the years and we have been able to maintain a high quality of instruction due to the work of our excellent educators and building administrators.”

Next year, it is expected that five elementary school sections will be collapsed across the schools.  These teachers will all be utilized elsewhere in the District, mostly in the new FDK program.

He could not comment on specifics because affected parties have not yet been told of the changes.

Pepe said that larger class sizes allow teachers to differentiate instruction better as they give the teacher the ability to “group” the students. Several parents spoke to this comment.

Many of the comments from parents about class sizes focused on what they heard might happen at Brayton School next year, with one parent telling TAPinto Summit that the principal told the teachers, who relayed the information to the parents.

Wendy Barber -- a Brayton parent who is also a teacher -- said, “ ‘Large classes are more educationally sound,’ said no one ever.”  She said that the District should not just look at the number of the students, but also look at the ratio of boys to girls. She said that the third grade at Brayton is made up of 29 girls and 46 boys and they are expected to go from the current 19 or 20 in a class to 25 in a class.  

“That will be nine girls and 16 boys,” she said.  

“Increased class size takes away from teacher’s time with students,” Barber said.  She urged the District to reconsider the decision to have 25 students in a class. “Summit is better than that,” she said.

Chang said that “strong teachers” are given classrooms with more students. He assured Barber that a classroom would not exceed 25 students. “We would reevaluate and open another section,” he said.

Chelle Donnelly, also a parent with three students at Brayton, said that teachers are expected to differentiate their instruction for a diverse classroom of learners, but “an additional six to eight students puts additional burdens on teachers.” She said that identifying students who need special services becomes much more difficult. Kids with unidentified learning disabilities, ADHD, and anxiety might go unnoticed with up to 30 percent more students in the classroom, she said.

Vanessa Hillas discussed overcrowded classes at Jefferson school. She said that the first grade classes at Jefferson had 27 and 30 students in a classroom.  “We need adequate support and funding to be equal to other schools,” she said. She said that Jefferson has more diversity of learners -- ethnic, racial, and socio-economic.

Chang said that no class in the District has that many students, there was an outburst from the crowd as several parents argued otherwise.

Chang later explained that some students who were not in inclusion classes were brought together with regular education students for specials -- gym, art, etc, and that is when the classes were larger. Their aides came with them.

There is no formal District policy defining maximum class size, rather there is a guideline.  Policy 2312 states:

“The District does not have a formal policy nor negotiated contract language that makes specific reference to class size.  The District does have an operational guideline. The class size for primary grades Kindergarten through two shall generally not exceed 22 and in the intermediate grades three through five the class size shall generally not exceed 24.”

“Maximum limits shall take into account the subject matter, type of instruction, ability of pupils, availability of aides, and use of special facilities and equipment and may be waived to accommodate the demands of a temporary increase in enrollment.”

Ultimately, the policy states, “A desired range for the minimum and maximum number of pupils that shall be assigned to regular classes shall be established by the Superintendent.”

Resident Chuck Vitton said, “It’s more important to have smaller classes than Full-Day Kindergarten.”  

Diane Macina said, “Teachers are superheroes in many ways, but they cannot defy time.” She said, “There are only so many hours in a day,” and that smaller class sizes make for better instruction.  

Melinda Fleissner said that because of a move, she has experienced both Franklin and Brayton Schools.  “There is a different quality of education,” she said. She urged Board members to visit each school.

Chang said, “There is no class size issue in Summit.”  He said that the average class size is 20 or 21, and that “seven exceed the 22 threshold.”  He said that he “understands the frustration,” but the policy goes up to 25. He said he thinks about it all the time. “We evaluate and adjust,” he said. “If we need to open another section because numbers exceed 25, that happens.”

“I promise when we exceed 25 I’ll make sure we open another section,” Chang said. “I don’t think there is a need to panic about class size.”