BEACON FALLS — As the Region 16 school board reviewed the draft educational specifications for a new elementary school, switching to full-day kindergarten once again dominated the discussion.
The Board of Education is in the planning stages of a major building project. The project calls for a new pre-K through fifth grade school to be built on the Tallmadge Hill Road property in Prospect. Community and Algonquin schools will be combined into the new school.
The project also includes renovations to Laurel Ledge Elementary School and the construction of new district administrative offices.
The board is currently working on drafting the educational specifications for the new school. Educational specifications are the ideological blueprints for the school that will be used by architects to design the building.
As the board works to iron out the specifications a major bone of contention has emerged. The current draft specifications, as presented by Superintendent of Schools James Agostine, include a change to full-day kindergarten.
The change has been the center of discussion for the past month or so, as was the case during the board’s June 8 meeting. The sticking point for some board members is a financial one.
If the board approves full-day kindergarten in the educational specifications, but ultimately doesn’t make the switch, it could risk some state reimbursement on the project.
The board is slated to be reimbursed about 70 percent of the project’s cost by the state. However, the state dictates what in a school building project is eligible for reimbursement based on student enrollment and whether the students would use what is built in the school.
If the board were to specify full-day kindergarten in the educational specifications and not make the switch, the extra classrooms built to accommodate full-day kindergarten would not be eligible for reimbursement. The district then would have to cover the full costs of building the extra classrooms.
Agostine said the new school would need six classrooms for full-day kindergarten and only four classrooms for half-day kindergarten. More classrooms would have to be included in the renovation of Laurel Ledge to accommodate the change as well.
The switch would also mean more teachers.
Agostine said the district would need six or seven more teachers if it switched to full-day kindergarten. He added the new teachers could be phased in over time. Using very rough numbers, he estimated the additional teachers would cost about $360,000.
Agostine, who is a strong proponent of full-day kindergarten, has contended that there’s a movement in the state to mandate full-day kindergarten.
If the project doesn’t include full-day kindergarten, and the state mandates it five years from now, board member Donna Cullen said the board will have to do a the project over again to renovate the schools.
“What do we do then?” she asked.
Agostine felt the decision is a philosophical one, not a financial one. He said the new school will be used for the next century by a citizenry that doesn’t even exist yet, and urged the board to think big.
“You, as a board, have the ability to look into the future and build a monument,” Agostine said.
Board member Robert Hiscox said his feeling is that it’s the board’s job to do what’s in the best interest of the students, which in his mind is full-day kindergarten.
“Whether it’s mandated or not, all day kindergarten, I believe, is in the best interest of the students,” Hiscox said.
Throughout the debate, financial concerns continued to weigh heavy on the minds of some board members.
Board member Sheryl Feducia said she understands the concept of thinking big. But she said she’s concerned with getting the project to pass at a referendum.
“I think we have to look at realistically what the towns can handle financially,” Feducia said.
Once the plans are set the project will need to be approved by the taxpayers in Beacon Falls and Prospect.
Agostine said if the project fails at a referendum the board could scale it back.
Vice Chair Priscilla Cretella, who has repeatedly expressed concerns over risking state reimbursement, said she’s afraid if the board approves the specifications with full-day kindergarten the people will think it’s a done deal.
Cretella, who said she wouldn’t support the change, suggested the board bring in education experts to give a presentation on the pros and cons of full-day kindergarten before it moves forward.
Agostine said he will try to line up a presentation for the board’s next meeting June 22.
As the board continues the debate, Agostine is looking to have the specifications approved by the end of this month to move the project ahead.
The board must move forward with the specifications for the new school before moving to the more complicated project of renovating Laurel Ledge.
Agostine said the specifications for the renovation project will mirror what is in the specifications for the new school.
“Please keep in mind what you do in this new building needs to be done in the old building,” Agostine told the board.