Two years after Melrose Public Schools made even more families eligible for free and reduced full-day kindergarten fees, Mayor Rob Dolan is proposing to eliminate the $2,500 fee entirely.
"If we can eliminate the one fee that is an actual educational grade ... that is the greatest blow to a two-tier system of haves and have-nots as it pertains to public schools," Dolan said at a press conference in his office on Monday morning.
Eliminating the fee would be part of Dolan's proposed fiscal 2013 budget that he'll present to the Board of Aldermen in April. The mayor said that based on individual conversations he's had with aldermen and the School Committee, he expects to have support from both boards.
The move would cost approximately $500,000 next school year, but the city's Chapter 70 state education funding would cover the cost of the full-day students in subsequent years.
Currently, Melrose only receives 50 percent of state education funding that it usually receives per student for each full-day kindergarten student whose family pays the current fee, whereas the city would receive full funding for each student who receives free full-day kindergarten.
Dolan said that when Massachusetts first started full-day kindergarten in public schools, the state subsidized the program before eliminating the funding, leading to the institution of the fees. Eliminating the fee leads to a one-year budget gap that Dolan likened to a bridge year before the increased state education funding kicks in.
"You would need a one-time infusion of money to build that bridge, because after you get over that bridge, the coffers are refilled with Chapter 70 money," he said. "It becomes sustainable for the long-term."
Greg Zammuto, Melrose Schools business manager, said that the district typically brings in $450,000 to $500,000 in full-day kindergarten fees depending on the number of students who qualify for a reduced tuition rate.
By offering free full-day kindergarten next school year, according to Zammuto, Melrose would receive an approximate $687,697 increase in Chapter 70 money in fiscal 2014, followed by an increase of $153,857 in fiscal 2015 and subsequent years. (See attached PDF.)
How Does City Fill The Budget Gap Next Year?
Level-funded local aid, a lack of snow deficit and a low health insurance increase would allow the city to fill the one-year financial gap before the boost in state education funding, Dolan said.
Gov. Deval Patrick's fiscal 2013 budget proposal level-funds local aid and provides a bump in Chapter 70 money to Melrose. It'd be the first time since fiscal 2009 that the city wouldn't face a cut in local aid.
State Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, and Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, both expressed confidence at Monday's press conference that the city's level-funded local aid would survive this spring's budget process.
"We think we're going to be able to match those numbers," Clark said. "It may come in throughout the year, but sort of mirroring the process that we did last year where cities and towns got a supplemental to their local aid in the fall."
Clark added that the move aligns with the state's focus on the connection between preschool and kindergarten, and aiming for better reading results for third graders in particular.
"Reading by third grade is sort of our highest priority right now," Clark said. "That third grade levels predicts so much for the future that we think this exactly aligns with not only a unique budget year where we can support this from the state level, but also where the state is going on policy around education."
Brodeur echoed Clark and added that free full-day kindergarten was a passion of his when he served as a Melrose alderman at-large.
"We are very excited at the prospect of making this work," he said. "I think it’ll be a real feather in the cap of Melrose and it really will do a lot to sustain and improve what is already an exceptional product here in Melrose."
With regard to the snow budget, Dolan said the city has spent $200,000 on snow removal this light winter after having budgeted $450,000, and usually spends more. That surplus and lack of the usual snow deficit would be used to support full-day kindergarten during the bridge year.
Finally, as a member of the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), Melrose faces an "artificially low" increase in health insurance costs next fiscal year—1.43 percent. The city budgeted for a 6 percent increase, but the growing size of the GIC; a requirement that insurance companies rebid and repropose their GIC plans next year; and a significant drop this past year in health insurance utilization due to GIC increased deductibles and co-payments, all led to the low increase for next year.
"Could any of those three things happen again—level aid, no snow, and the insurance?" Dolan said. "Maybe individually one of those things will happen, but I would put my credibility on the line and say those three things are never going to happen again all at the same time. So it gives us an opportunity to do something significant one time."
Support From Educators, Officials
Melrose School Committee Chairwoman Kristin Thorp said that since the committee first instituted the fee in January 2003, reducing and possibly eliminating the fee has been a priority of the committee.
"We're very excited that the city has given us the opportunity to do this," Thorp said. "In terms of the greater picture of the work going on at the high school, the fields and technology across all of our schools, this is one piece of that puzzle."
Lincoln School Principal Brent Conway said that the bar has been raised with regard to the educational expectations placed on early grades, and with Massachusetts adopting the national Common Core standards, kindergarten is no different. Kindergarten expectations, he said, are particularly demanding in the areas of literacy and numeracy.
"As educators, our greatest resource and our greatest barrier is time," Conway said. "To give every kindergarten student in the entire city a full-day kindergarten experience, that’s where we use our greatest resource of time to make sure that students are prepared and ready to move on into first grade, and be proficient students moving ahead."
Superintendent Joe Casey said that eliminating the fee aligns with Melrose's vision for the future, citing the creation of the Franklin Early Childhood Center as one example of that vision.
"This is just another, but a very important step, to help families move forward and embrace education," Casey said. "You know that you need more today to compete with the global economy."
Dolan also said that the cost of the eliminating the fee would not impact other initiatives next year, such as renovating Melrose High School and infusing the district with new textbooks. He also said that in comparing Melrose to nearby communities with similar socio-economic profiles, Melrose would be the "only community in its socio-economic makeup" to offer free full-day kindergarten, which he said affects both education for Melrose kids and the property values of homeowners.
"This is protecting and adding value to their greatest personal investment, which is their home," he said.