All-day K wins unanimous thumbs up of School Board, but City Council not so sure

All-day K wins unanimous thumbs up of School Board, but City Council not so sure

WOONSOCKET - Despite concern from teachers and taxpayers over a proposal to reinstate full-day kindergarten, the Woonsocket School Board unanimously voted in favor of the plan last week, leaving a nod from the Budget Commission as the final hurdle to starting the program next fall.

The City Council, meanwhile, considered two resolutions for and against recommending that the Budget Commission grant that passage, but ultimately tabled the matter after listening to more than an hour of testimony.

The plan, presented by Supt. Giovanna Donoyan, would see 5th-grade students moved from the city's seven elementary schools to a new 5/6 Academy to be created at Villa Nova Middle School. Eleven classrooms freed up by the move would be used to house the full-day kindergarten students, while 7th- and 8th-grade students would occupy the Hamlet Middle School.

The proposal has come under heavy criticism from residents questioning how the city can afford the program after flirting with bankruptcy and fighting deficit spending over the past several years. Opponents have also questioned if there is enough space to accommodate all of the students slated to attend the two middle schools and have said the proposal on the table is inadequate because it does not include funding for kindergarten teachers' assistants.

The city has received two grants totaling more than $570,000 for the start up costs of increasing from a half- to a full-day program, and Donoyan's calculations see Woonsocket coming up $297,774 in the black, once disbursements from the Rhode Island Department of Education are factored in that reflect increased enrollment.

Donoyan has said that the district would receive an additional $683,000 in state aid annually for the program.

"The issues as far as the money, I have been convinced that it is something that the city can afford," said School Board Chairman George Lacouture.

But some residents and city officials have questioned the logic of relying on state funds, which they say have been subject to unpredictable changes in the past.

"The state is not doing a good job of keeping itself afloat," said resident Phil Lebrecque. "If people think the state is going to be in any position to bail us out, they just make me wonder why, at this time, are we doing this."

Lebrecque pointed out that while the program, which is estimated to cost roughly $1.1 million each year, could benefit the students, it could ultimately rely on taxpayer money.

"How much do they benefit if their parents get foreclosed on?" he asked.

Debra Duquette a kindergarten teacher at Bernon Heights Elementary School, said the program loses its worth if the teachers are not given assistants, an expense not budgeted for under the current proposal.

"Obviously everybody wants full-day kindergarten, but we want it done right," said Duquette. "By losing our support in the classroom, even if we're in school all day long, the students will not meet academic needs."

"They will not have the supports in place," she added, pointing to the difficulty a single teacher has with conducting basic tasks, from fire drills and bathroom breaks to trips to the nurse's office, without assistance. "You will not see the results that you're looking for."

Melissa Bovier, a 2nd-grade teacher at Coleman who taught full day kindergarten in Woonsocket for eight years, agreed.

"I have seen the ramifications of half-day kindergarten," she said, pointing out that 17 of her 27 students this year came in reading below grade level. Still, she said, the benefits cannot be reaped without the assistants.

"When you have 25 children who are struggling with one adult in the classroom you're truly doing them a disservice," Bovier said. "The kids aren't getting what they need."

Board members defended the proposal, citing not only the benefits for students but the ability of a high quality school system to attract businesses and more financially stable residents.

"People who hold high paying jobs do not live here," said board member Soren Seale. "We can choose to vote no and do nothing and hope that the circumstances in our town will improve. I think it is time for Woonsocket to take control of our own future."

"From a financial standpoint, I understand there is some uncertainty. But at the end of the day, I feel like this is going to be worth it," Seale said.

The 5-0 approval marked the first high-profile vote taken by the board, appointed by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt in December. Woonsocket voters approved the change from an elected to an appointed school committee via referendum in the 2012 election, giving the new mayor authority to select the board this term.

For her part, Baldelli-Hunt has been a vocal supporter of full-day kindergarten, and took the lead role in securing a $500,000 legislative grant for the program while serving as a representative of House District 49.

Board members cited city voters' decision in electing the new mayor while casting votes in favor of all day K.

"People pulled a lever in November and said we need a new direction," said School Board member Dan Chattman. "You pulled a lever and you put new people in new positions in the city."

"One of the main things that brought us together and put us on this board was that we believe in public education," added member Susan Pawlina. "We want nothing but the best for this city because we love this city and we want it to grow,"

"Doing the same thing over and over again is not going to get us different results."

Critics have continued to question the proposal following the board's vote, with one opponent even paying for a $1,495 insert opposing the program in this week's edition of The Breeze.

"According to RIDE's website, based on information provided by the school department, the capacity of each building is 750 students," the flyer states of the twin middle schools.

"Next year's projected enrollment for the proposed 5/6 Upper Elementary Academy is 914 students."

Said Cynthia Boss in a four-page letter, "I believe the proposed plan will be harmful to the education of large numbers of children and will ultimately cost taxpayers much more than is being projected."

On Monday, dozens more residents testified against the plan at a packed City Council meeting.

"I do not approve of knee-jerk spending," resident Douglas Clark said, directing his comments to the mayor. "You need to prove to us that you are fiscally responsible before asking us to shoulder another burden."

Councilors Daniel Gendron, Roger Jalette and Albert Brien openly opposed the current proposal, and Jalette even questioned the mayor's judgment in supporting it. Jalette's testimony led to a tense back and forth with the mayor, in which he questioned if switching to an appointed school board was a wise move.

"The first major vote that they take and they bow to the mayor," Jalette said.

Baldelli-Hunt, meanwhile, described the plan as a work in progress.

"We are not passing this if it is not feasible for the community," she said.

Council members Christopher Beauchamp, Robert Moreau, Melissa Murray and Garrett Mancieri had sponsored a resolution recommending the Budget Commission approve full-day kindergarten. Beauchamp, however, voted in favor of Gendron's proposal to table the plan, along with Jalette and Brien.

"I cannot count how many people have contacted me in opposition to this initiative," Gendron said.

The resolution was tabled 4-3.

The Budget Commission is expected to take up the issue at its next meeting scheduled for Feb. 24.

Comments

It's absolutely amazing to me that the school board would approve the full day K without so much as a blink. Here you have SO MANY people during the good and welfare portion, telling them that there are way too many things unaccounted for. There are far too many expenses that are not accurate, and they have not even done the proper research. Yet, the new mayor has waved her hand, so her puppets do what they are told. It's shameful. The full day K may end up being good for the city, but do your due diligence. Research every aspect of this undertaking and do it the right way.

Kudos to the city council for taking the time to do this right.

I agree wtih Imzadi. The elected officials and their appointees need to listen to the people. It appears that the superintendent and the mayor came up with the idea of FDK and the 5/6 Academy and they will do whatever they can to push this through. They are refusing to listen to other options. They are refusing to hear what the people are saying. What's even more amazing is that many of the Woonsocket teachers have come out against this. No teacher assiatants in the full day kindergarten class, moving 50% of the district and even jamming over 900 students into a school that has a capacity of no more than 800 students. Also, what will happen to those buildings that taxpayers approved only a few years ago? The plans are to divide classrooms, dismantle art, music and the shop classes. They are even planning on cutting the libraries in half. Yet the NECAP scores are bad in the middle school. Guess what? They had full day kindergarten!

There is a Budget Commission meeting on Monday, February 24th at 5 pm. I am urging people to get to the meeting and let the commission know that this is not to be approved. The talk radio shows on WNRI and WOON are full of people calling and saying that this can't happen.The voice of the people needs to be heard. Let them hear it Monday!

This is supposedly such a terrible idea. So bad that it passed unanimously through the school committee, couldn't muster enough reaction in the city council, and will overwhelmingly pass the budget commission. Plus full support from the mayor, RIDE, and superintendent.

Are the citizens who oppose this idea so inept, where they can't even cause this plan to be at least "postponed for further study"? I've listened to all the comments from mywoonsocket.com and I was less than impressed. The first guy sounded drunk and wanted to fist fight everyone. This, my friends, is NOT how you present a good argument.

Sorry "your neighbor", but you are wrong here. We, who oppose it, are not inept. We are thinking clearly and asking those in politics to do the same. I would like them to take the time to do this correctly and research the added costs that WE will have to pay for. We just floated an $80 million bond for two state of the art MIDDLE schools to house no more than 800 students in each. With this plan, these schools will be bursting at the seams. Although I am not convinced of the added academic benefits of full day K, I am convinced that it will be an added expense, in a district that is so strapped for cash already.

Stop the name calling of people who think differently than you do.