Board again rejects full-day proposal

Sparta will not institute full kindergarten program

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By Fran Hardy
— For the second time in three months, the Sparta Board of Education has rejected full-day kindergarten. Only three of the nine board members voted in favor of the measure, while six voted against it, effectively ending the opportunity to implement full-day kindergarten next fall, and postponing it indefinitely.

At their budget hearing last Thursday the board had the chance for a do-over of their first vote, which rejected full-day kindergarten 5-3 on Feb. 27. On the second go around, at least two board members changed their original votes, and the full board was present this time, but the result was the same.

At the meeting, Schools Superintendent Dennis Tobin and Business Administrator Linda Alvarez presented the school district’s $67 million budget for 2014-2015, which was originally proposed and approved by the board as the tentative budget in March and sent to the county superintendent’s office for preliminary approval.

The budget includes a half-day kindergarten program and the use of $700,000 of the district’s banked cap funds to remodel the high school track, along with around $1 million in other capital improvements.

The board had the opportunity to modify the budget on Thursday and use the full banked cap of more than $1 million, which would fund full-day kindergarten for next year and going forward, and direct fewer funds toward capital improvements, putting the track back on a waiting list for the time being. But the board majority opted to stick with the original budget.

Second thoughts
The move to revisit their original vote on full-day kindergarten was prompted by Board Member Frank Favichia, who voted againt it the first time. He said at the board’s March meeting that he had reconsidered and wanted to change his vote to yes.

Considerable discussion on the subject then ensued between board members at subsequent meetings. The majority of the feedback from the public via emails to the board and during public participation at meetings urged the board to reconsider and support full-day kindergarten.

Based on these board discussions, including Board Member Scott Turner’s apology for being absent for the first vote due to illness and his indication he would drag himself from a hospital bed, if necessary, to be present for the second vote since he believed full-day kindergarten was important for the community, the public perception was that the board majority would vote yes the second time.

“Anyone who attended board meetings since the board agreed to reconsider the vote on kindergarten had a strong perception that the will of the board was shifting toward support for full day, based on dialogue at the board table. But some board members have been conflicted about whether to implement full day and if so, when. When it came to the vote, it didn’t pass,” Tobin said.

Since the tentative budget had already been submitted to the county, Tobin explained last month that the board was required to go ahead with their annual budget hearing as scheduled in April and present the original budget. Then after public comment and during their discussion before the vote, a board member could make a motion to modify the budget and propose an alternate budget, including use of the full banked cap to fund full-day kindergarten.

Back to the drawing board
Since it appeared the board would move in this direction, Tobin and Alvarez, along with the board’s finance committee spent three weeks reconfiguring an alternate budget that would include full-day kindergarten.

During this process, it was discovered that the originally estimated recurring cost to fund full-day kindergarten each year of $1.1 million, could be reduced to $665,000. Tobin’s revised realignment plan which put third grade instead of fifth grade at Mohawk Avenue School, and the reduced transportation costs for eliminating the mid-day run for half day kindergarten, were cited as reasons for the decrease.

Tobin stressed to the board that he fully supported full-day kindergarten, as he always had, and emphasized it was his and his administrative team’s strong recommendation, but the process to re-do a second budget in such a short time had been very difficult.

Moment of truth
During the public comment after the budget presentation last week, only two people spoke on the subject of full-day kindergarten.

Anand Dash spoke strongly in favor of the program, saying that although he is a runner and uses the high school track daily and would love to have a better surface, he urged the board to make the choice that would do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He believed full-day kindergarten would be the best choice for the entire community.

Diane Nocerino said that although she supports full-day kindergarten, she urged the board to renovate the track instead. She said the entire high school student body uses the track, not just those on the track team, and the condition of the surface is horrible.

“The time is now. Do right by the kids,” she said.

But when the moment of truth came last Thursday, and Favichia made the motion to modify the budget, there was an uncomfortable silence when Board President Karen Scott asked for a second to the motion.

Board members looked down at the table and no one spoke until Scott said, “Well, I’ll second it because I think we should at least discuss this.”

Then Board Member Todd Muth said he thought such a vote would require two-thirds, or super-majority vote of the board, rather than a simple majority. Member Brenda Beebe agreed, saying that is what she remembered from her board training. The proceedings then went off-track for a while as board members looked through policy manuals and online to get confirmation.

Meanwhile, Scott asked if anyone wanted to discuss the motion. Favichia explained his reasons for changing his mind, saying academic improvement in the district must begin in the early grades. He said for the past two years the spirit of the board had been to implement full-day kindergarten, but then two new board members, who ran campaigns that opposed full-day kindergarten, joined the board in January, and things began to change.

He said he opposed full-day the first time because he supported a tuition-based program, which was also voted against.

Favichia said that in the current budget, “We have over $100,000 for a couple of parking lots and a gym floor?” He said he believes the board’s investment should be in academics in the lower grades.

Scott said she supports athletics in the district, but she believes in the recommendation of the administrators and educators, and supports full-day kindergarten, as she did before.

Board Member Richard Bladek read a statement saying current testing of district first graders shows they are being well prepared by the half-day kindergarten and a full-day program is not necessary to help the early learners do better.

Tobin then received confirmation from the county superintendent’s office that Muth’s and Beebe’s information was incorrect and a simple majority is all that is required for such a vote and the board moved forward.

The vote to modify the budget
Beebe and Bladek voted no, as they had the first time and Favichia voted yes, changing his vote from the first time, as he said he would.

But when Muth’s name was called, there was an audible gasp from the audience as he voted no. His first vote was yes and he gave no indication that he intended to change his vote, nor did he contribute to the discussion prior to the vote on Thursday. McEvoy and Scott voted yes, as they had the first time, while Members Jack Surdoval and Kim Yeomans voted no, as they had the first time.

The second surprise and gasp from the audience came when Turner voted no. Clearly, audience members expected him to vote yes. He did not offer any explanations, either prior to or after the vote. The motion was defeated.

According to sources who wish to remain anonymous, there was considerable behind the scenes campaigning between board members, as well as from others, against full-day kindergarten, but the public was not privy to any of these recent discussions.

Plan C
Surdoval then proposed a second modified budget that would not include full-day kindergarten for next year, but would utilize the entire $1,033,645 of banked cap, rather than only $700,000. By law, these funds would then become part of the base budget going forward. But the vote was 7-2 against this proposal, with Surdoval and Scott as the only votes in favor.

State law says the banked cap funds, which are funds that accrued since the district kept the tax levy under the state’s required two percent increase during the 2012-2013 budget year, are available for use within three years. After that, what is not used is no longer available. Had the board approved Surdoval’s proposal, funds would be in the budget next year and going forward to implement full-day kindergarten and other measures. Instead, an available $333,000 for the school district was rejected.

All that was left was to vote on the original budget. It was approved 8-1, with Yeomans as the only no vote.

2014-2015 school budget bottom line

For the average assessed home in Sparta, which is $293,400, the tax impact for 2014-2015 will be an increase of $332.00. This includes use of the $700,000 in banked cap funds. If the full $1,033,645 in banked cap funds had been approved, the increase would have been an additional $41.00. The entire detailed budget presentation is available online at www.sparta.org, under reports/information in the board of education section.

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