Full-Day K Funding Gets Initial OK From Aldermen
The one-time expenditure of $497K next year would bridge the one-year financial gap created by the elimination of the $2,500 full-day kindergarten fee, before additional state education funding would kick in and cover the cost of the program.
One-time funding that would allow Melrose Public Schools to eliminate the $2,500 full-day kindergarten fee received initial approval from the Board of Aldermen on Thursday night.
The aldermen's Appropriations Committee, comprised of the full board, unanimously approved the $497,425 transfer from a variety of accounts to the school department, and the full board should take a final vote to approve the move at its next meeting on Monday, May 7.
The one-time expenditure would bridge the one-year financial gap before additional state education funding would kick in, via the state's Chapter 70 formula, to cover the cost of providing full-day kindergarten to all students.
In addressing the aldermen last night, Mayor Rob Dolan reiterated that a unique set of favorable fiscal circumstances makes the move possible: at least level-funded local aid, a lack of snow deficit and a low health insurance cost increase.
Dolan also addressed a question raised by some of the aldermen: whether or not changes in the future could result in the city having to find more money to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.
"Mr. (Patrick) Dello Russo (Melrose chief financial officer and city auditor) and I have done an exensive amount of background and research to ensure what’s very important to us—sustainability," Dolan said. "This isn’t a one-time fix, then in two years or next year there’s some unforeseen situation that we’ll be back before the School Committee seeking additional funds."
Dello Russo said that he worked with Dick Sullivan of public accounting firm Powers and Sullivan to determine that eliminating the fee would not adversely affect the city's finances in either the short or long-term.
"We’re in a position, a foundation budget status, that works for us," he said. "Some communities are not in the position because of net school spending or foundation aid. We are."
Alderman at-Large Mary Beth McAteer Margolis pointed out that the per pupil amount provided to the city through the Chapter 70 formula is the same for each student, regardless of grade level, and that the $2,500 fee did not fully fund full-day kindergarten.
Dello Russo, in response to a question from McAteer Margolis, said that the city received approximately $3,500 for each half-day kindergarten student and over $7,000 for each full-day student. The school department could therefore conceivably realize a net overall increase in money by eliminating the fee.
"The district has been covering some of the cost," McAteer Margolis said. "I think this puts us in a very smart position going forward, not only fiscally but academically."
Where the Money Comes From
Most of the funding comes from one-time state aid the city received this fiscal year to the tune of $313,638, according to the order filed with the aldermen.
Another $200,724 comes from the city's overlay accounts for fiscal years 2006, 2008 and 2010; those accounts are money the city must set aside to cover property tax revenue shortfalls, whether due to abatements, exemptions or otherwise. The Melrose Board of Assessors, Dello Russo said, has determined those funds are available and won't be needed to cover those fiscal years.
Lastly, $80,000 comes from the city's ban/bond premium account, which holds money paid upfront by those bidding on city contracts.
Not all that money is going to the full-day kindergarten, as the city does some end-of-the-year bookkeeping: $85,226 goes to the city's additional lottery aid account, approximately $6,200 to the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital Donation account and approximately $5,400 to the Public Works insurance fund.
Support From the Public
During the public participation portion of the meeting, Peter Doucette read a letter signed by himself, his wife, and 112 other Melrose families that "strongly" supported the move.
Beyond reducing the financial burden on families and leveling the playing field for all students—one of the reasons Dolan cited as a driving force behind the proposal—Doucette said the families that signed the letter believe it will "send a strong message about the value we—as a community—place on education, and will further distinguish Melrose as an excellent place to raise a family."
The letter also said the move would be fiscally prudent for the city and that as enrollment increases in pre-kindergarten programs, such as the Franklin Early Childhood Center, adding "universal, full-day kindergarten is a necessary next step.
Doucette also read that the 113 families who signed the letter represent every public school in Melrose, as well as Mystic Valley Regional Charter School and St. Mary's School, and Melrose parents and grandparents of current students, along with families who do not have school-aged children.
"We believe that this order represents a firm commitment to the Melrose Public Schools and to the type of education our students need and deserve to learn and thrive—today and in the future," Doucette read.
Should School Budget Be More Closely Scrutinized?
Gerry Mroz, a stalwart of Melrose School Committee meetings, also spoke during public participation in support of the one-time funding that would allow the elimination of the full-day kindergarten fee, saying it is "absolutely a good investment."
However, Mroz also noted that in recent years, the city and school department has a history of finding additional money for school-related items, such as $15,000 for elementary science kits or $120,000 for textbooks.
"When enough parents chime in and enough attention is brought up, this budget, all of a sudden when a need is public enough, the need is satisfied," he said. "Whether HVAC at the Winthrop or a host of other things, the money seems to come from nowhere and is there. That troubles me."
Given his view that the school department has not wisely managed its budget, Mroz said he considered—but stopped short of—asking the aldermen to provide only $400,000 to the school department asking school officials to find the remaining $100,000 within its own budget.
Asked by Aldermanic President John Tramontozzi to comment on Mroz's idea, Dolan said that he and Dello Russo do not treat the school department any different than any other city department, and advocate for better, wiser spending from all.
"We do not feel this particular revenue should be used as a chip or bully pulpit to reduce costs," he said. "People at home are deciding what they want to do next year for K in Massachusetts and first grade. Let’s put this to rest. I understand the points were made ... but tonight’s not the night. We pass all day kindergarten, we allow the superintendent to send notices home and create some security for the future of early childhood education."