March 21, 2014

Full-day kindergarten has some support at City Hall

Following a budget hearing Thursday, city leaders expressed some support for the Board of Education’s bid to switch to full-day kindergarten next fall.
“It’s absolutely worth the money,” said city Councilor Calvin Brown. “It’s like making a choice between the 21st century and the Dark Ages.”
The school board is seeking an extra $1.9 million as part of its spending requests to fund a changeover from half-day to full-day kindergarten, a move that would triple the current two hours a day of instructional time, according to Superintendent EIlen Solek.
“We have to understand that’s a very, very small portion of the budget,” said city Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, a proponent of the move.
But it’s not clear that the proposal will win over a majority of city councilors and Board of Finance members who have to weigh the idea as part of a proposed $111.4 million education budget that would cost taxpayers $7.1 million more than the schools received this year.
“That’s a lot of money,” said city Councilor Eric Carlson. “The numbers kind of scare me a little bit.”
Derek Czenczelewski, a finance commissioner and former councilor, said he’s sure that a lot of young families would like to see the city adopt full-day kindergarten.
But, he said, officials “have to weigh it carefully” given the high cost and the impact on the minimum budget requirement that makes it nearly impossible for the city to reduce education funding from the previous year’s total.
Solek said the school budget as a whole was developed “thoughtfully, carefully and slowly” to cover rising costs and essential needs.
It includes some money to add middle school sports back into the mix, but at least two city leaders expressed frustration that it couldn’t also find money to restore the music and arts funding that was chopped during the recession.
Both Carlson and Finance Chairwoman Cheryl Thibeault said that children with an artistic bent should also have opportunities.
The main new initiative, though, is the school board’s call to join 77 percent of Connecticut districts by offering full-day kindergarten.
Solek said it would be “the most important thing that we can do for the city itself” because it would spur young families to move to Bristol who might otherwise go elsewhere.
“We need to stay competitive,” she said, and to keep educational achievement on the rise in a district where half the children in first grade or younger are eligible for free or reduced school lunches.
Brown said he also believes the kindergarten change is “one of the most important investments the city can make.”
He said it will help families who are trying to decide “where to plant their roots and build their lives.”

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