SUMMIT, NJ - Summit’s kindergarten classes may go from half-day to full-day sessions in the near future, but city officials differ substantially on the benefits of the change and whether it should be funded by the city’s taxpayers in the school budget or by tuition charged to parents of those attending the expanded sessions.
The proposal currently is before the school board’s education committee and other committees also are studying it.
According to board of education president George Lucaci, the change to full-day kindergarten is needed now because of a number of practical issues:
First, all Summit children need to be “at the same starting line in first grade.”
Second, about 20 percent of first graders are in need of remedial help.
Third, there are costs involved with remediation and retention.
Fourth, he noted, “We as a community are better than half-day kindergarten. We have to realize that the demographics of Summit are changing with different minority groups moving into our city. Also, full-day kindergarten soon will be mandated on the state level. We don’t want the community to say this board of education should have funded it now when bond rates are at the 2 percent level rather than later at the 4 percent level.”
The school board president added the community prides itself on being inclusive and a thriving community depends on the success of its schools.
He noted full-day kindergarten will attract many new families to Summit and will meet the needs of families coming in, such as those relocating to the city when Merck moves its global headquarters to Summit from Whitehouse in 2014 and 2015.
Lucaci said Summit should benefit when these factors increase the demand for housing and should not lose out because neighboring communities offer full-day kindergarten and Summit does not.
Although the school official sympathizes with city residents who do not have students in the schools, he added Summit also needs to educate its children to compete globally, and, it will be more costly to the city if it doesn’t have all students at a more equitable starting line.
Lucaci also said current state law sets educational parameters beginning with first grade. However, If "paring down" is applied to full-day kindergarten, then, theoretically, is could be applied to higher grades such as first grade and the state law could be changed to "pare down" first grade or other grades.
He added it was a “canard” to say that full-day kindergarten would eventually force budget cuts that would affect other high quality programs that Summit parents have come to expect.
“Our residents always have shown they want to support these high quality programs and I don’t think this support is going to stop,” he noted.
Lucaci said he has not seen all the cost figures, so could not comment on whether a tuition-based program would be more feasible for Summit.
Figures quoted by Summit Common Councilman Thomas Getzendanner say that 75 percent of Summit parents with children in half-day kindergarten in the Summit public schools pay third-party providers to supply “wrap-around” programs for their children after the half-day sessions have ended.
Getzendanner, who says, he is “dead set against” full-day kindergarten funded out of the public school budget, believes those parents who currently are paying third-party providers would be willing to pay tuition to send their children to full-day kindergarten in the Summit public schools.
The councilman said tuition could be set high enough so the tuition budget could fund “scholarships” for the 25 percent of children whose parents could not afford the full-day session tuition.
Getzendanner, whose children attended Summit public schools, praised the high quality of education in the city.
He added although he did not want to see the schools “skinny down,” there is a realization in Summit that only 28 percent of the population is enrolled in a system that takes up 52 percent of the tax burden and he doesn’t believe taxpayers can stand a much greater “overallocation.”
As city school officials learned a few years ago when Summit’s state aid for schools was cut to zero, Getzendanner said, the state is not a continued reliable source of funding and city school officials need to develop non-tax alternatives.
He added if school budget cuts force the system to “cannibalize” the high quality programs Summit residents have come to expect city school officials might be “shooting us in the foot.”
The councilman cited a recent Alternative Press column that suggested parents disenchanted with this occurrence might form charter schools that would compete with the current public school system and further erode the city’s school budget.
Another city official concerned about possible higher taxes resulting from full-day kindergarten taken out of the school budget is Mayor Ellen Dickson.
She said the average household in Summit is paying approximately $15,500 this year in property taxes, and the Union County budget alone could result in an increase next year of Summit’s share from $30 million to $33 million.
This, she added, could drive more homeowners out of the city and further erode the diversity of which Summit is so proud.
Dickson emphasized, however, that she has not yet made a decision on which direction the full-day kindergarten proposal should go and believes that decision may be six months or more away.
The mayor noted, however, the decision “should not be left up to just three people.”
She pointed out that few residents realize they do not vote directly on school board members, who are appointed by the mayor, and on the school budget, which is approved by the board of education before going before the board of school estimate for final approval.
The board of school estimate consists of the mayor, two common councilmembers and two representatives of the school board. Thus, a three-person plurality can determine the ultimate outcome of any proposed school budget.
Although Dickson considered suggesting that the full-day kindergarten question be placed on the ballot in a general election the city clerk informed her this would take the signatures of at least 2,000 voters and she could not be sure if such a referendum would be binding on the school board.
“Besides,” the mayor said, “the people elected us to make these types of decisions and it would be like ducking the issue if we did not deal with it.”
She called for maximum public input on the issue and said the school board should take a long and hard look, balancing the educational advantages and disadvantages with the tax concerns.
However, another concern for the mayor is the fact that there are many high-quality full-day kindergartens run by churches, private schools and other entities in Summit and competition from the public schools might hurt these programs.
She did note that one of her three daughters attended a full-day, tuition-based kindergarten when they lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The mayor said she was glad to pay for it and it was a very good experience for her daughter.
Dickson expects to be at Thursday evening’s school board workshop meeting at 7:30 pm at which the board is expected to discuss the full-day kindergarten proposal.
Even more cautious approaches to the issue came from Dave Bomgaars, the chair of the common council finance committee and a member of the board of school estimate, and council president, Richard Madden.
Bomgaars said, “The board of education has not provided me, as a member of the board of school estimate or as a member of council, any information regarding the institution of full-day kindergarten. Before responding to your questions, I would like to read and hear the educational rational of the experts, pro and con, for full-day kindergarten, and I would like to review the financials behind this local initiative.”
Bomgaars also expects to be at Thursday’s board of education workshop meeting.
Madden, said he also didn't have enough information yet to support an educated decision.
He added, “I need specific data on closing the achievement gap in gifted school systems and the projected fully loaded capital expenditures, debt service and operating costs. This could be the subject of a joint council-board of education meeting.”
Architects reportedly have been studying existing school facilities, including the primary centers, to determine where renovations can be done if the full-day kindergarten proposal is approved.