Sunday, March 9, 2014
GORHAM — The Town Council approved the school department's 2012-13 budget Tuesday despite a public outcry to add funding for all-day kindergarten.
Councilors, who voted 6-1 with John Pressey opposed, commended the dozen speakers who made an impassioned plea for the program before the vote, but said school programming is not within their purview.
"I wholeheartedly urge the discussion to continue," said Councilor Matt Mattingly.
Mattingly said he consulted with an official from the Maine Department of Education who told him that the council doesn't have the authority to add programs or money to the school budget – only to approve it or cut money from it.
In April, the School Committee approved a $32.2 million budget for the year that starts July 1.
"I wish we had other choices before us," Mattingly said. "Today, they're aren't."
Members of the Gorham All-Day Kindergarten for All Kids Committee, who have been pushing the school district to add the program since last year and recently intensified their efforts, said they plan to urge residents to vote down the budget in a townwide referendum June 12.
They said they were not satisfied by an offer made at the beginning of Tuesday's public hearing by School Committee Chairman James Hager, who promised to hold a public forum in September to talk about the program.
"We just worry that's to further placate us and further quiet our efforts," said Kelli Deveaux, a member of the committee.
There are 181 kindergartners in Gorham's three elementary schools this year. About 15 percent of them attend an extended-day program because they are behind their peers either academically or socially. The rest go to school either in the morning or the afternoon.
Gorham is one of five districts in Cumberland and York counties – and about one-quarter of Maine school districts – that don't offer all-day kindergarten, according to an informal survey by the Department of Education.
Adding the program, which the district estimates would cost $400,000, to Gorham's school budget next year would approximately double the tax increase.
Town Manager David Cole said Tuesday that, based on the latest valuation figures, the school budget would raise the tax rate by 19 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
Although the public hearing Tuesday was on the entire budget for the town and schools, the vast majority of people who spoke talked about all-day kindergarten.
Speakers included parents of young children, retired residents and educators.
Pam Mercier, whose children have already been through kindergarten, said she has a co-worker who was ready to buy a house in Gorham but chose not to when he found out that the kindergarten program was half-day.
"I wonder how widespread this is," she said.
Kate Thomas, a mother who is a special education teacher in another district, said her son was overwhelmed by first grade this year, and she blames an inadequate kindergarten program.
"It's a rushed day. They have snack, they have recess, they have specials," she said.
Only a couple of people spoke against adding the program.
Ruth Marshall, who said she has 30 years of experience as a teacher, said she believes "most children do quite well with the current half-day program."
She said it would be unreasonable to reconsider the budget at this point.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at firstname.lastname@example.org