WESTFIELD, NJ – A plan the Board of Education is considering to bring full-day kindergarten to the school district would require two bond referendums: one to pay for building improvements and the other to pay for teacher salaries, school officials said this week.
Addressing the school board on Tuesday, residents Joanne Chen and Jessica Arbus both spoke in favor of full-day kindergarten. Both have young children who are or will be moving through the school system.
“It seems like it’s been a conversation for a very long time, and it continues to just be a conversation,” said Chen, who recently moved to Westfield from Hoboken. “I want to know what our action items are.”
“What are the next steps?” she asked. “Who’s responsible for those action items to get this referendum going?”
Arbus, who lived in Jersey City before moving to Westfield, suggested the district form a public committee to address the issue.
“I think if we have a committee where we can talk, have people who are parents of young kids and older kids, and come up with a marketing plan and different ideas, I just think this is something that has to happen, and it has to happen sooner than later,” Arbus said. “It’s an important issue, and it’s happening all over the state.”
Board President Peggy Oster said the district has been considering full-day kindergarten in recent years.
Oster said that two years ago, the district concluded it would need 14 additional classrooms in order to expand kindergarten to a full-day program. The district determined the most cost-effective way to do add these classrooms would be to build two new additions at two schools, she said.
When the district initially considered building these, Oster said, the community would not support a referendum for $8 million in construction costs and $2 million increased salary costs for new teachers.
The board’s long-range planning committee recently discussed the idea again, Oster said, and determined that construction would now cost $10 million and salaries would increase $2.6 million.
School Business Administrator Dana Sullivan said a resolution to secure the $10 million for construction could be introduced in March 2020.
Board member Brendan Galligan said securing the necessary funding would be a two-step process that would take at least a year-and-a-half.
“The first vote in March would be for the construction, and then we’d have to wait until the following November to ask to approve the increase in salaries,” Galligan said. “We could be three-quarters of the way through construction, and the voters could turn around and tell us ‘no, we’re not funding it.’”
No other school district has previously had to ask for funding using a two-part referendum like this, Galligan said.
Despite this, Chen said having full-day kindergarten would increase area property values, and that this may encourage more residents to support the plan.
“Perhaps you can also sell it as something for everyone’s property values,” Chen said.
“It’s not just one benefit to a certain subset of the population,” she added later.
Arbus proposed increasing the 12-to-1 student-teacher ratio or holding some classes in shipping containers as potential alternatives to new construction.
The board encourages residents who have ideas or opinions about full-day kindergarten to reach out via email.
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