2017-11-10 / Front Page

RSU 21 on track to roll out all-day pre-K

Program could lead to some grade shuffling among schools
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Following a Nov. 6 workshop session, the RSU 21 board of directors is on track to approve creation of an all-day public preschool program to start next fall.

What’s more, in stark contrast to fiscal fears raised back in February when the concept was sent to a study committee, it now appears educating 4-year-olds could actually be a money-maker for the district.

That’s because the state subsidizes kindergarten and pre-K programs at 1.5 times the calculated tuition rate for older students. But, more importantly, the Maine Department of Education (DOE), which wants all public school districts to have voluntary pre-K program in place by 2019, is now willing to provide upfront funding to make that possible.

According to a Sept. 7 legislative and budget summary authored by Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance, thanks for that change goes to State Senator Brian Langley, a Republican from Ellsworth, and state rep. Brian Hubbell, a Democrat from Bar Harbor.

According to Furlow, $4 million was to be directed from revenue at casinos in Bangor and Oxford to help launch public preschool programs statewide starting in 2015. That earmark got cut from the state’s 2015- 2017 biennial budget and was pushed out again in the 2017-2019 spending plan. However, during the most recent budget process, Langley and Hubbell sponsored a change to the state’s Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funding model.

Previously, it took more than a year and a half for school districts to get their general purpose aid for education subsidy dollars for preschool programs, and that forced school districts choosing to launch or expand such classes to foot the bill for all startup costs using local property tax dollars alone.

That naturally caused a significant impact to local mil rates, and was back in February, former school board members Jeff Cole and Lionel Menard, both of Kennebunk, warned of the “unfunded mandate” lurking behind the curtain of any pre-K program.

But the Langley/Hubbell edit allows schools to secure EPS funding upfront, based on estimates of projected enrollment, rather than getting reimbursed in arrears on actual enrollment numbers.

Although the RSU 21 school board will not cast a final vote on whether or not to create a preschool program until its Dec. 18 meeting, enrollment projections had to be submitted to the state by Oct. 31 in order to become eligible for the upfront funding, with the lone caveat that the estimate had to come in below the actual October 2017 district enrollment for kindergarten.

Superintendent Katie Hawes said RSU 21 met that deadline and submitted an estimate of 160 preschool students.

In an Aug. 28 post on the Maine DOE website, early education specialist Susan Reed wrote that the enrollment survey was “only meant to capture the level of interest in accessing funding provided by the legislature and does not guarantee funding.”

Still, Hawes said during Monday’s summary of the report from RSU 21’s 11-person public preschool exploratory committee, that the district can expect $172,500 in state funding for each 16-child pre-K classroom it creates, or $1.73 million for 10 pre-K classrooms serving the top expected enrollment.

Hawes noted that based on the fact that public preschool will not be mandatory, enrollment may be lower in the first year of the program. The committee estimated 112 pre-K school students in seven classrooms for the 2018- 2019 school year, with projected state funding of $1.2 million.

Subtracted from that would be $525,000 in salary and benefits for seven teachers (at $75,000 each), $342,000 for nine ed techs — one for each class and two “floaters” — (at $38,000, each), and $80,000 for a program director. Other startup costs would include $28,000 in classroom technology, $70,000 in furniture, and $84,000 to implement a preschool curriculum and assessment regimen, as well as $8,700 for transportation. Hawes said meals could be provided to preschoolers without added staffing.

Hawes said 4-year-olds would ride on the regular bus with older students in all three district towns, helping to keep transportation costs low, although a dedicated shuttle would probably be needed to move the pre-K kids from Kennebunkport Consolidated School to Kennebunk Elementary School, where the preschool program would be housed.

Still the net effect is an expected surplus of $69,996 on the state subsidy — money Hawes said would “go into the general fund” for uses in other areas.

According to the committee proposal, the preschool program would then ramp up to 160 students in the 2019- 2020 school year, adding three more teachers and three more ed techs, while also bumping the program director position up to assistant principal of KES at a salary and benefits package of $100,000. However, curriculum and assessment costs would drop to $10,000 per year, while technology and furniture costs would be eliminated, put off until replacement cycles begin in 2023 and 2028, respectively.

All of that, Hawes said, would mean an annual surplus of $370,580 on the state subsidy for its prospective preschool program, starting in Year 2.

Asked if the state would really give RSU 21 more money than it actually needs for a preschool program, Hawes said funding at 150 percent of tuition for 4- and 5-year-olds has been an integral part of the EPS formula since 2005. RSU 21 is simply fortunate, she said, in that it has space at KES for the program and does not need to build out any new infrastructure, as other school districts might. And the funding might actually be even more than projected, as the committee made its calculations on the current per pupil state subsidy for RSU 21 of $7,089 (or $10,783 for pre-k).

Hawes also noted that one factor keeping costs down is that RSU 21’s preschool program will only be for traditional, mainstream students. Any preschool students needing special education would continue to handled by Child Development Services (CDS).

Matt Fadiman of Kennebunk, chairman of the RSU 21 school board’s finance committee, said special education costs can run as high as $200,000 per student. CDS, Hawes said, currently runs a $10 million annual deficit.

Hawes said Maine is the only state to run early intervention programs through a system like CDS, and the legislature perennially faces bills to move those services into the public schools.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen next year, but at some point it’s going to happen,” she said.

“I don’t want to offer too much conjecture, but that will have a huge [financial] impact on us,” Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano said.

All school board members who spoke at Monday’s workshop were supportive of the plan, as were members of the exploratory committee.

The primary need, they agreed, is encapsulated in the report “Annual Growth, Catch Up Growth” which presents data showing that children enter kindergarten with a four-year range of skills in reading and a two-year gap in math. That disparity can last from the entire length of student’s public school career, and the closer one gets to high school, the harder it can be to get on grade level.

“It really is difficult when you are trying to teach a kid who is ready to read chapter books alongside another one who can’t even recognize their own name,” said fifth-year kindergarten teacher Ashley Baker-Koch, one of four RSU teachers who served on the exploratory committee.

Meanwhile, a 2016 Educate Maine report points out how school are trying to shrink that starting skills gap — with pre-K offerings growing from 49 percent of Maine school districts in 2013 to 72 percent in 2016. RSU 21 is one of only three school districts in York County, out of 16 total, without a preschool program. However, as Hawes noted, not all of those schools have a universal program such as the one recommended for RSU 21. Some offer pre-K only to students from low- or moderate-income homes, while many others employ some form of lottery system for limited openings.

Hawes pointed out that in 2016 kindergarten screening, 20 percent of incoming 5-years-olds at KES were flagged with some form of delayed development in one or more areas, as were 29 percent at KCS and 10 percent at MLD. This, she said, indicated some level of need.

“If we invest in kids earlier we’ll need to provide less [intervention] services later,” she said.

The closest anyone at Monday’s meeting came to open dissent on the pre-K proposal was Menard. Although RSU 21 might get more in subsidy dollars than it needs for pre-K, that does not equate to Hawes claim that the program would “not cost taxpayers” anything, he said. “We don’t print money in this state. It has to come from somewhere. What happens when this money goes away? How is that going to impact everyone? it may sound good now, but it may cost us a lot more in the future.”

Among school board members, the biggest concern was busing. Most agreed it has to be offered if the program is to truly be a service for all 4-year-olds in the district, but some questioned the ride time, up to 30 minutes.

“That’s a long bus ride for that age,” said Catherine Rush, of Arundel.

Hawes said she expects many parents will drop off their preschoolers. She also noted that while the program will run for the full school day, parents will have the option to pick up their children after lunch.

Others said more public input is needed on a proposal to make additional room for preschoolers at KES by moving Grade 3 to Sea Road School, which currently houses Grades 4 and 5 only. Although most expressed support for that concept, it was agreed that it should be left open as an idea to be explored after pre-K enrollment is completed in January, and the actual numbers are known.

That left most nodding along to the final thoughts offered by Fadiman.

“To me, this is simple,” he said. “RSU 21 has always been a leader, not a follower. I’m disappointed we do not have a [pre-K] program yet. This is an example of where we are way behind the curve, although we may be able to implement a smoother, better program as one of the consequence of being so late to this and being able to see how others have done it.”

“Still,” he said, “in nine years on this board I’ve never been faced with the idea of putting in an advantageous program while returning money to the taxpayers in doing it — and I don’t think that opportunity is ever going to come again.”

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

Return to top