SUMMIT, NJ - Universal, free, full-day kindergarten (FDK) will begin in Summit in September 2019, replacing the current tuition-based lottery system; and there will be no reduction of classes in Summit’s five elementary schools. These were the highlights of the $65.89 million 2019-20 Summit Public School budget which last night passed the Board of School Estimate (BOSE) by a 4-1 vote, with only Debra McCann, the president of the Board of Education (BOE), voting against it.
The budget, which includes $1.5 million for FDK, will mean an tax increase of $137.92 for the average home assessed at $420,000.
The Chambers of Summit's City Hall was packed with parents who came to plead their case once again for smaller class sizes, in the wake of the plan to decrease five sections at the elementary school level.
Current and former BOE and BOSE members, current and former members of City Council, principals, school supervisors, teachers, administrators, and community members added to the standing-room-only crowd.
Summit School Superintendent June Chang surprised the crowd in his opening remarks with the promise that the five sections would not be decreased and no class will begin the school year with more than the district guideline of 22 students for grades K-2 and 24 students for grades 3-5.
The meeting was actually two separate meetings. First the BOE met. Board members Mike Colon, Peggy Wong, Donna Miller, Josh Weinreich, Vanessa Primack, and Chris Bonner approved the budget; McCann was against.
Then the BOSE met. Members from BOE --Bonner and McCann -- voted yes and no, respectively, while both members of Common Council -- Marjorie Fox and Matt Gould -- voted for the budget. Mayor Nora Radest also voted yes, but her vote would only have counted in the event of a tie.
The effort to get FDK approved in the Summit Public Schools has been active for well over a decade, and many of those instrumental to that goal were present in Chambers to cheer the approval.
Last week, the BOE approved its final budget by a vote of 6-1 with McCann casting the first of her “no” votes. At that time, she said that she would present the statement that supported her decision at the BOSE meeting. Some highlights follow.
McCann said that there were two drivers that caused her to vote the budget down. "The budget includes a significant $1.5 million investment, or resource allocation, in Universal FDK, an expense that will increase year-over-year, and, as one citizen’s letter said, 'once you ring the bell, you can’t un-ring it,' she said.
Second, she said, is "that tax increase is a 2.6 percent increase, which is over the state-mandated cap, requiring us to use banked cap... something the District has never done, and something that in most NJ districts, would require a town-wide vote."
She called FDK "an emotional and controversial topic," and said that the first priority is "the education of our students." While she said that the Board is in complete agreement that this means meeting the needs of students from all socio-economic backgrounds, the disagreement occurs "in how to allocate funds in order to accomplish this shared priority... and this year, a big allocation is FDK."
She gave the history of the District's analysis of the efficacy of the five-year old tuition-based FDK program. She said that the first study, performed by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR) following the 2014-15 school year, "deemed inconclusive."
She said that Chang indicated that an internal study by the actual FDK teachers would be more effective, but that it would take two to three years to gather and analyze enough data to determine if the program should be considered for all students.
"In October 2018, after four years of running the full-day program, with available data - -primarily first grade basic skills data -- on 745 students; 413 in Summit’s full day, and 332 in Summit’s half day, she said, "Superintendent Chang introduced his plan to implement Universal FDK at a annual cost of $1.5 million." At this time, she said that she again asked about the data.
"Mr. Chang said that the academic differences for students entering first grade are minimal," she said. She said that Board Members Colon and Wong at that time also questioned benefits and asked for more data on Summit students.
Chang, she said, reported that the program is new and that the data is "young" and would take years to collect.
"He said that the kids feel great and the students are all smiles in terms of being engaged," she said.
McCann said that during several public meetings, community members were met with similar responses when asked about data. Responses, she said, were "primarily observation-based and anecdotal, and some references to national data.... with little weight being placed on the four years of first-grade performance data we collected on our own students."
She said, "I, like many, see some value in a full-day versus half-day, and a part of me would love to just say yes based on anecdotal information, but I believe that as a public school district with limited funds, it is critical to ensure we are putting our money where it can be best utilized, supported by data, in helping all of our kids, particularly those who need it most."
"Because, whether explicitly stated or not, any new program with a seven-digit price tag has inherent trade offs which impact all 4,000 kids in our district," she said, "If not now, then down the road when budget pressures arise, and other, more easily reversible programs are forced to be cut."
She said that Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe said that because the year-over-year teacher healthcare contributions ended in 2015, the District would no longer accumulate banked cap. "In other words we will most likely be bumping up against two percent going forward," she said.
Additionally, she said that "current real estate trends" are of concern, specifically three separate residential growth areas which might mean more school-aged children in the District. She also said that as older residents leave Summit more children might move in. Both of these, she said, could have future "budget pressures."
She said, "Although I can’t project if enrollment will increase or by how much, in order to keep class sizes where they are today, which as we’ve heard loud and clear is important to parents, capital spend and / or hiring decisions may need to be made in the near future."
"These real estate trends along with unstable state aid and unknown healthcare premium increases, lead me personally to believe that by not making trade-off decisions now, we have simply delayed tough budget choices down the road, when it will be too late to have a meaningful, community-wide discussion of Universal FDK’s priority over other programs or priorities," she said.
"I think that if others were willing, we could find creative ways to solve these concerns rather than the all or nothing approach within this budget," she said.
"Our role as an independent Board is to represent our students and the community as these large investment decisions are being made," she said.
She said that she finds it "hard to believe" that there is not a better use for the $1.5 million. "It's hard for me to believe that $1.5 million can’t be spent more effectively to help these students in other ways, and at other times throughout their K-12 experience in our schools," she said.
She quoted "one community member" who said, "Our job as the Board of Ed is not to lower your taxes, but our job is to spend your tax dollars wisely, while also taking into account the tax and housing price environment our community is experiencing."
“This vote is about whether or not I believe this budget best supports all 4,000 students of this District in a financially responsible way, and based on the lack of in-District academic data to demonstrate either a sufficient return on investment or an academic performance issue that needs to be solved with a $1.5 million investment; the lack of a more robust resource allocation discussion on the prioritization of Universal FDK versus other District initiatives; and the fact that the budget is over the 2 percent cap which is not reasonable given the current tax environment in which our community is living, just as I voted on March 7th, I will again vote no.”
Other FDK Comments
Parent Steven Spurr challenged BOSE member Councilman Gould on his support of a FDK program which would require raising taxes. He said that when Gould was first campaigning for his Council seat he said that he supported FDK, but also said that he was “vehemently opposed” to raising property taxes, and that there could be a creative solution,” Spurr said.
Gould, during his statement of support for the budget, said that in his campaign statements he did support FDK, but “sometimes when you are on outside looking in it looks differently from when you are on the inside looking out.” He said that he believed it was a “thoughtful and cogent” budget that showed “fiscal responsibility.”
He said that, with the loss of the tuition-based program, there was more than $700,000 in lost tuition revenues that had to be accounted for.
He said that a tuition-based program is “a perpetrator of inequality.”
Mayor Radest campaigned, in part, on the promise of working to bring FDK to Summit. She said, “I view this budget as an investment in our town and in our children.” She said that she appreciated the “careful and measured approach” that the City took to the issue of FDK.
“Our superintendent, supported by the resulting experience of our first-grade teachers, has concluded that our students will be best served by a full-day program,” she said. “Although change is difficult, it seems clear that in this case it is warranted, and that Summit should join the more than 90 percent of school districts in New Jersey that currently offer FDK.”
“FDK is not the only driver of the budget increase,” she said. Salary increases and healthcare costs also drive the budget, Radest said.
She said that she believes “the social and emotional learning reinforced in a strong kindergarten program” is a vital component in quality education.
In their statements at the BOE portion of the meeting, Colon said that he gives the program and the budget his “full support.”
Board Member Miller also voted yes, and said that Board took their responsibility to the community “very seriously,” in thorough review of the FDK program, as would be done for any new or expanded program.
She said that she “takes issue” with anyone who infers that the deliberations of the Board “are not honest.” She said that his budget supports the whole student, from academics, to athletics, to art, and supports the teachers. “The students’ and teachers’ educational welfare is our priority -- our main priority,” she said.
Board Member Weinreich said that the Board listens to every comment and had read all of the emails that had been submitted, even though they do not respond in real time to statements addressed to them during the public portion of Board meetings. He said that the respectful discussions that took place -- even though they were filled with “competing viewpoints” -- were able to “model good behavior” for the students.
Board Member Wong said that she “wrestled” with approving a budget that was over the two percent cap. She said she looked at the FDK supporting data but found “mixed results.” She felt that the numbers in the budget originally submitted were “way too high” but now called the budget “a lean and mean machine.”
Operations Committee Chair Bonner said that the vote is taken “very seriously.” He stood by the full statement he made at the BOE final vote last week and said that he thanks the teachers, who are underpaid for all the work they do.
Board Vice President Primack, who chairs the Education committee, which, along with the Operations committee, was instrumental in getting FDK approved, quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Investment in knowledge pays the best interest,”
She said that she is “cognizant of the cost” and has a “commitment to fiduciary duty," adding that her decision was made “based on the educational welfare of children.”
“I hope today will be a day of celebration,” she said.
Current Summit Common Council Member Mike McTernan does not support FDK. He said, “It’s not how I would make decisions with other people’s money.”
He said that capped dollars should only be used when something is “unforeseen or an emergency.”
“In my view, that’s not fiscally responsible,” he said.
Parent Rachel Brennan disagreed with McTernan, and said she does see the inequity of a lottery-based system as “an emergency.”
Parent Danielle Maloney said that FDK increases taxes for everyone “across the board” for the benefit of “a small percentage of children. There has to be another way to figure this out.” she said.
Parent Andrea Stein said that supporting FDK is doing “the right thing.” She said that she is “beyond pleased,” and noted that the BOE has had budgets that have come in under cap “for years.”
Leading up to the meeting, the District had planned on reducing five sections across the elementary schools and, subsequently, beginning the school year with several sections taxing the upper limits of the class-size guidelines set by the District. Over the past several weeks, parents rallied in great numbers to lobby the Board and Chang to keep class sizes at their current levels or reduce them.
At the BOSE meeting, Chang said, “The anticipated proposed section reduction will not occur; I’m committed to not be at or below the maximum guideline numbers.”
Chang said that there is room in the budget to leave intact the five sections.
Chang's decision appears to be the byproduct of old-fashioned civil discourse, resulting from elementary school parents who mobilized and created an online petition that garnered more than 1,000 signatures. and their passionate presentations with District administrators at a recent 'Speak Up Summit' meeting.
President McCann said that the sum of these efforts was heard "loud and clear" by the administration.
“We’re open to listening,” Chang said. “We’re open to having a conversation.”
Parents, who spoke during the public portion of the BOSE meeting, praised the District for its decision, but indicated that they were not pleased by the transparency and the process by which it arrived.
Class Size Community Input
Parent Hayley Telling said that the class size decision “should not fall solely on the shoulders of the superintendent and the BOE.”
She said that parents and specialists should be considered, as they would provide “true input.”
“The current system doesn’t work,” she said.
Telling proposed a Parent / Student Advocacy Committee at each school which advocates for class size, special needs students, diversity and other subjects. She said that this would enable the administration to “operate in a more transparent manor.”
Parent Sarah Bird said that she was impressed by “the outpouring of support from the community.” She said that the change.org petition showed a clear call to action to the BOE, and she “sincerely” thanks them for “listening and taking specific action.”
She also requested that there be a continued dialogue between the community and the Board to foster transparency. She asked that the Board create a policy that puts a hard cap on class size, and that this decision not be “subject to the sole discretion of one person.”
One Jefferson School parent discussed the issue at Jefferson where the homeroom class size is not reflective of the size of the class for specials such as library, gym, music, art, and technology. At this time, the students from the inclusion classes join the classrooms, and the head counts swells to as many as 30 students in one classroom. “If there is a class size cap, this must apply to special classes as well,” she said. Adding aides and coaches to the mix, she said, just adds “more bodies” to an already crowded classroom.
Parent Eric Salcedo shared his support of the FDK program. He told a story of how children in a tuition-based FDK classroom labeled those in the half-day program as “the poor kids.” He hopes that the universal, free program will “rectify and bring overdue change to Summit.”
Parent Carlos Borrero said that “trust and perception” issues could have been avoided if parents, teachers, and even older students had been involved in process to “allocate funds to meet needs.” He said that many on the Board and the administration thanked board members and administration for their input and guidance, but did not thank the parents. Borrero said that he is a NYC principal, and he relies on the parents as well for input and to make it a “transparent and collaborative process.”
Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School Teacher Dan Miller, who is president of the Summit Education Association -- the teachers’ union -- said that larger classes hinder the teachers from performing effectively. He said that the SEA “strongly urges” that class sizes remain close to what the District has currently. The larger the class, the harder it is for teachers to teach, he said. This results in "gaps in skills,” and behavioral issues.
Radest added, “I understand the concerns of parents who are worried about class size; I trust that Superintendent Chang will be true to his word that no elementary class section will be at or above the policy guidelines.”
“I also trust Mr, Pepe’s statement that there is room in this budget to allow the superintendent to keep his commitment,” she said.
“Just as with our own family budgets,” she said, “The BOSE makes hard choices to make sure that we are providing the best possible educational environment for our children with the resources we have.”
Chang said that this budget “models what we can do as a community.” He said that it “allows the Summit Public Schools to thrive and supports each and every individual child in each and every grade.”
After the meeting, TAPinto Summit asked Chang how the decision to keep all sections will impact staffing. He said that some staff will need to be hired as sections are opened.
“In terms of who will be deployed where, those decision are made along with the principals throughout the spring,” he said.
The actual budget vote and audience reaction: