By Danny Schrafel
Elwood School District officials are considering restoring full-day kindergarten in the district in the 2015-2016 school year – and with it, the possibility that they’ll have to pierce the state’s tax levy cap to do it.
Should the school district proceed with a cap-busting budget, it will need to get 60 percent of the voting public to endorse the decision at the May 19 budget vote.
Elwood is one of three school districts in Huntington – and six overall on Long Island – that still has a half-day kindergarten program. Neighboring Northport-East Northport is weighing a budget that includes full-day kindergarten starting in 2015-2016, and residents of neighboring Harborfields are lobbying their district for a full-day program. There, school administrators have announced the creation of a full-day K committee, aimed for a possible 2016-2017 start.
The increased rigor brought on by federal Common Core educational standards, which detail what students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade, “has changed the game,” Elwood Superintendent Peter Scordo said, and made full-day kindergarten critically important. If those standards don’t change in the coming years, full-day kindergarten will be “a must,” school board Trustee Dan Ciccone added.
Elwood taxpayers voted to fund full-day kindergarten starting in the 2009-2010 school year, but two years later, voters, in the face of crushing budget constraints, ratified a budget which rolled the program back starting in the 2011-2012 school year.
“We have a lot of folks who say, ‘My children had half-day K and they’re doing extremely well.’ Back then? Yes. But now, I really question that,” Scordo said.
In a full-day program, children will “receive more time to engage in literacy, math, science and social studies, but receive enrichment” through art, gym, music and socialization, Harley Avenue Primary School Principal Elissa Toubin said.
Ciccone said he was “very pleased” to see the recommendation amidst budget proposals in which funding for other programs, including athletics, remains steady.
“What we’re seeing here is, regardless of the financial restraints, if we’re crafty enough and the aid is available, we can actually not make any cuts, but important programs for our children,” he said.
Re-launching full-day kindergarten for 2015-2016 would require a total of 3.3 additional staff members, including two additional kindergarten teachers, an additional 0.5 ESL teachers based on new requirements, and a 0.8 increase in special-area teachers, such as physical education, art and music, for a total net increase of 3.3 staff positions.
Those increases are offset somewhat by shifts in K-6 staffing levels. One class section would be reduced in grades 2 and 4, and a section would be added in grade 3, Loughlin said; those are due to enrollment levels.
All told, full-day kindergarten would require an additional $372,059 in funding.
With full-day kindergarten factored in, as well as additional staff for science labs at Elwood Middle School and a high school staff position to allow for more electives, the budget stands at $59,560,783. That would require a tax levy of $44,275,059, or a 3.76 percent increase. The cap set for Elwood is 2.22 percent, which would allow for a cap-compliant levy of $43,618,104. The difference between the cap levy and the current proposal is $656,955.
That being said, Scordo said it’s still too soon to say whether the district will pierce the cap.
“We have no idea what the revenue is,” he said, speaking of state aid projections that haven’t come.
As a result, the current budget assumes an “almost flat” year-to-year change in state aid, except for a “very small percentage” of revenue-driven aid that district officials know will change.
Trustee Andrew Kaplan said Cuomo “continues to hold this budget hostage to his wants in regards to education.”
While the initial sticking point was education reform – Cuomo has tied aid increases to getting what he wants in policy changes – and the governor has yielded somewhat on that front, he now is hanging his star on ethics reform, and says he won’t sign a budget without sweeping reforms.
Assuming the state budget is adopted on time by April 1, the district will be “well-positioned” to make decisions on April 16, the night for which the school board is scheduled to adopt the budget. The deadline to ratify a budget is April 24.
“So, anything we do get is going to offset where we are, and it will be great news,” Scordo said. “It’s just too early to inform you and the public that we’re definitely piercing the cap. I hope that things go the right way, and there’s a possibility that we may not have to.”
The superintendent said he’s confident Elwood residents haven’t changed their minds on the merits of full-day kindergarten.
“I’m banking on that this community did not change its mind, that we did change and went back to half-day K solely for one reason – that was dollars,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the decision to have a full-day K program has been made by a former board, and certainly by this community.”