2017-02-17 / Community

School district to pursue pre-K program

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Regional School Unit 21 school board member Lionel Menard, of Kennebunk, argues during a Feb. 6 meeting against creating a new committee to study establishing a pre-K program, saying the district should focus first on completing goals attached to its recently adopted strategic plan. (Duke Harrington photo)Regional School Unit 21 school board member Lionel Menard, of Kennebunk, argues during a Feb. 6 meeting against creating a new committee to study establishing a pre-K program, saying the district should focus first on completing goals attached to its recently adopted strategic plan. (Duke Harrington photo)
KENNEBUNK — With a state mandate to install a universal pre-kindergarten program by 2019, the RSU 21 Board of Directors has agreed to form an exploratory committee — however support for the move was far from universal.

At the Feb. 6 school board meeting, Superintendent Katie Hawes proposed forming a 12-person committee to “research, develop, and recommend a model” for adding instruction for 4 year olds, and offer its suggestions back to the school board in January 2018.

That group would consist of four school board members, four teachers, one elementary school principal, and three parents or volunteers from the community. Hawes, who will act as facilitator for the new committee, was slated to unveil picks for the seats, chosen in cooperation with school board chair MaryBeth Luce of Arundel, at the Feb. 15 board meeting. That session took place Wednesday night, after the deadline for this week’s Post.

At the Feb. 6 session, Lionel Menard of Kennebunk let it be known with more than just his lone “no” vote that he opposed the idea.

“We have a strategic plan and we’re less than a year into it,” he said, holding up a copy of the plan to emphasize his point. “We have a lot of work to do on that without diverting resources into something that was discussed during the process of creating that plan and tabled. We have a published strategic plan and pre-K is not part of that.”

“Are we asking the board to dump the strategic plan, because I see a lot of other committees that have to be formed first, in my opinion, in order to address aspects of the strategic plan that, frankly, are not being addressed,” Menard added. “I just see ourselves going down a path that will suck resources away from the strategic plan, as well as the day-to-day operation of the RSU as well as the buildings. The time is not right.”

In response, Hawes ticked off a list of things she has done recently to achieve a key goal the in the first of four “focus areas” in the 2016-2021 plan — namely, increasing SAT scores in math where Kennebunk High School juniors trail a national benchmark score 495-510 on the test’s 200-800 point scale.

“In the last two months I bet I have spent 20 to 25 hours personally engaging in discussions, data analysis and research, and I’ve been in math classrooms K through 12, to see what is going on,” she said. “So, when you say we are not addressing a particular area of the plan, it would be better for me if you would say, ‘How are we addressing this particular area?’ and then I could explain to you what is happening in our schools.”

“And it would be better for me if we were communicating that information to the public, as well as to the board,” Menard said.

Luce pointed out the plan has built in release dates for progress reports to the school board on all aspects of the plan.

“We have not got to that report date for Focus Area 1,” Luce said. “Also, I would appreciate it if, when you have questions like this, you would come to me and ask what we might be doing, because I also feel a little blindsided, because I have not heard from you about your reservations or your questions about what we are doing specifically about teaching and learning.”

Menard said he had not raised questions because he “assumed something was going on,” but felt compelled to raise the issue given the “sudden appearance” of pre-K on the board’s meeting agenda. More than 800 people had been involved in drafting the strategic plan, he said, and pre-K and a major policy and budgetary goal now felt “slipped in.”

“We are not slipping this is,” Luce said. “We had a full board discussion at a workshop where it was decided we wanted to move forward with this, because we are legislatively mandated to have this in place by 2019, and we currently do not have a plan for that.”

“I remember that workshop. I was there. I did not get the same impression,” Menard said.

“We’ve been talking about this since 2014,” said Maureen King, of Kennebunkport. “This is not new. We’re not trying to slip this in. It has been on the back burner, but this is something that we as a school board have to address. We are obligated by law to present a plan on how we are going to provide this service. So, for us to not at least pull together a committee to talk about it — there are lots of things that are not on our strategic plan that we can’t just shove down the road.”

“I don’t think the strategic plan was ever intended to be an exclusive document,” agreed board member Peter Fellenz, of Kennebunkport.

Meaghan Lovejoy, the newest school board member from Kennebunkport, said the pre-K issue has been a hot topic on social media, particularly the closed Facebook group KBK moms.

“While I was not part of the strategic plan development, because I’m new this year, I know a lot of parents of young children in the three towns [of the RSU], or who are thinking of moving to the three, are asking, why to we keep tabling this? I think not talking about this does the public a disservice. It’s something young parents in this community really, really want.”

Lovejoy also made the argument that while pre-K is not specifically mentioned in the plan, it is an underlying component of all four focus areas in the plan — teaching and learning, positive student outcomes, healthy learning environments, and unified schools and communities.

Hawes pointed out that the strategic planning process began with nine focus areas, including establishment of pre-K program. Those were then whittled down to the final four.

“We wanted a manageable plan of three to five focus areas, instead of a list of 20 goals,” she said. “Pre-K is something that would cause a budgetary impact that needs to be studied on its own, rather than making it part of a strategic plan, because it’s a board decision, and we didn’t want to bind the board’s hand on that.”

School board Jeff Cole of Kennebunk voted to create the exploratory committee, but said he felt like he was doing so, “with one hand twisted behind my back by the state.”

“I don’t like an unfunded mandate,” he said, “especially one that has the financial consequences that this does, especially when we have pretty good data sets on where population demographics are going.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennbunkpost.com.

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