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As Wellesley override nears, parents still split over full-day kindergarten

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  January 10, 2014 10:00 AM

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At a public hearing Thursday, Wellesley parents were split between applauding and condemning the proposed $64.3 million school budget for next year, which is 7 percent more than last year’s and would require an override of Proposition 2 ½ to raise taxes.

Some at the hearing railed against administrators’ wish to start full-day kindergarten, the most expensive new budget line item at about three-quarters of $1 million, while others insisted it would be a boon to parents, citing education and childcare benefits.

School Committee members are slated to vote on the budget Jan. 14.

At Thursday's hearing, Wellesley parent Beth Cook, who was a vocal opponent of full-day kindergarten in recent years, said she was feeling sticker shock from the ballooning price of longer school days for the district’s youngest students.

“This override is daunting, even scary,” she said. “I think there are other ways to meet the goal of longer blocks of instructional time without the heavy price tag.”

Cook said she still supported the town’s current hybrid system, where kindergarteners have a mix of long days and short days.

“I remember hearing from many parents that they didn’t appreciate the specialness of the [hybrid day model] experience until they had gone through it,” she said. “I understand investment in early childhood education pays dividends down the road, but more is not always better.”

Wellesley mom Beanie Spangler also questioned the concept of more time in the classroom for youngsters, noting that limited schooling might better accommodate the short attention span of kindergarteners.

“We’re expecting more and more of these 5-year-olds, but the 5-year-olds themselves may not be able to keep up,” Spangler said, noting that kindergarteners might need less restrictions as they tend to have active imaginations. “They need time to sort all this out and to play. I believe the current program provides the best of both worlds.”

But other locals who spoke praised the administration for the added programs, singing the praise of prolonged days and even welcoming the tax hike after years of cuts.

Susan Clapham, who serves on Wellesley High School’s PTO board, said the parent-teacher association has repeatedly picked up the tab for library resources and professional development measures for the cash-strapped school.

“I find it exciting to be talking about possibilities instead of reductions,” Clapham said. “Last year, the PTO donated over $50,000 just for school library expenses like new books, e-readers, and online subscriptions. This year’s budget gives back appropriately to the schools.”

Julia de Peyster, another Wellesley High PTO member, even went so far to describe the budget as “exciting,” noting that she was grateful for Wellesley teachers and counselors helping her son through a difficult learning time when he was young.

“There is an enormous difference when you have a kid in school as much as possible and have professionals working with him,” she said. “As a mother, I can’t do what those professionals do.”

De Peyster said she has also heard support from the kindergarten teachers, which she said puts her at ease.

“The professionals who currently teach kindergarten seem to be behind this,” she said. “That doesn’t happen a lot in life, where someone is willing to change their schedule to work more for the same amount of pay.”

The issue of longer kindergarten days is not exactly new to locals. At a school district forum in October, some Wellesley parents clamored for implementing the full-day model in their public schools, while others opposed the potential tax hike necessary to fund it.

If the override succeeds, full-day kindergarten would be introduced next year, although how is still being decided, Wellesley Superintendent David Lussier previously told the Globe.

"Full-day kindergarten will begin to happen next year," Lussier had said. "We don't know if it will be happening on day one, or if it will be phased in, but a transition will begin next year."

As of Thursday, Lussier said he was not sure how much a successful override would potentially add to the average homeowner’s tax bill.

Although full-day kindergarten was the center of attention Thursday, it is not the only new program in next year’s proposed budget.

The new proposal also includes a total of $215,719 for a new science curriculum across the district; $177,325 for a new social studies curriculum; $15,000 to introduce foreign language classes at the elementary school level; and $15,200 for apps in Wellesley’s one-on-one laptop initiative. Administrators are also asking for $660,000 in estimated benefits packages for new school employees, including 18 teaching assistants needed for full-day kindergarten.

For more information, visit Wellesley' public schools' official website.

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Follow us on Twitter: @yourwellesley, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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