Full-day K wins go-ahead in Woonsocket this fall

Full-day K wins go-ahead in Woonsocket this fall

WOONSOCKET - After more than a year of looking at proposals to increase kindergarten instruction from half- to full-day, the Woonsocket Budget Commission has finally approved a plan.

The city will offer full-day kindergarten by the start of the 2014/2015 school year.

And proponents say it will not cost taxpayers a penny, actually bringing in some $35,000 in extra revenue in 2015.

"The money for full-day kindergarten is sitting there," said Budget Commission Chairperson Dina Dutremble. "If you don't take advantage of it, you are losing an opportunity for the city. You are walking away from money that is available to improve the conditions of the city."

Funding for the service is expected to come, primarily, from state aid for education, which is based on enrollment. With more students enrolled in all day classes, School Department officials say aid to the city will increase. Additionally, thanks to the funding formula passed in 2010, state disbursements for education in Woonsocket are expected to increase every year for seven years, bringing the projected "surplus" from all-day kindergarten instruction to more than $694,000 by 2018.

The plan will see classes added to six of the city's elementary schools with 11 classrooms occupying space that once served as storage, art and music rooms. Students will attend the school closest to their neighborhood, and the district will need to add on one bus to accommodate the new group at a cost of $42,300.

The commission confirmed the plan via a 4-1 vote at its meeting on Monday, despite testimony from some residents still opposed to the idea.

"I'm extremely concerned about the viability of the funding sources, in particular the money that's supposed to come from the state. The state itself is currently facing north of $100 million deficit," said Monique Chartier, a member of the watchdog group known as Rhode Island Taxpayers. "It is almost inevitable with the deficit on the state level, that all the state funding will not come through."

According to commission member Carolyn Dias, 21 districts in the state already offer full day kindergarten programs, and that number is set to increase to 33 this September, leaving all but six districts with all-day instruction.

"All communities are working towards it," Dias said.

In Woonsocket, proposals to restart full-day kindergarten, cut to half time several years ago amid budget cuts, have faced heavy opposition, with residents in the financially struggling city leery of more fiscal commitments, and the prospect of an increased tax burden. Previous drafts of plans to implement the program, presented by Supt. Giovanna Donoyan, were criticized - at some points for lack of detail and at others for the lack of plans to provide needed resources such teacher's assistants.

After a meeting in April left commission members unconvinced that all of the potential expenses had been addressed, Dias, who previously served as chief operating officer for RIDE, was asked to help the School Department crunch the numbers.

"Every single expenditure was analyzed so we could really make informed decisions about projections," said Dias of her work on the plan.

Commission member and City Council President Albert Brien cast the only vote against the proposal, saying he felt he should do so despite his faith in the accuracy of the financial analysis.

"The data, and the people who have presented the data, are impressive. However, I have my own data and I can't support this," Brien said. "Not one person has said to me 'I am in favor of all-day K.' I think I have a responsibility as a member of this commission to represent the people as they want me to represent them."

The change to full-day instruction is expected to cost around $1.6 million a year including salaries and benefits for teachers. A $500,000 state grant, secured in part, through work by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt during her previous job as a state representative, has been held for start-up funding. Dias said the city applied for and received an additional grant of $10,000 to help with the initial costs.

Philip Labrecque, a resident and vocal opponent of previous full day kindergarten proposals, agreed that the presentation of the latest plan was impressive.

"It felt kind of reassuring that we'd accomplished what we wanted to accomplish most," he said.

Still, Labrecque questioned the logic of the commission focusing on the program, when the state-appointed board's mission is to restore Woonsocket's fiscal stability.

Dutremble responded, "You happen to see what we're doing with full-day K because it's gotten a lot of public interest. You don't see the expertise that all of us are bringing to all the things that we're working on in the city every day. The end result is looking better and better."