2017-12-22 / Front Page

RSU 21 to launch preschool program

School board votes 9-1 for new $1.1 million initiative
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Regional School Unit 21 will launch a new public preschool program next fall, and while that’s good news for parents, there’s even better news for taxpayers — the district will actually make money on the initiative.

At least in its first year.

According to Superintendent Katie Hawes, the Maine Department of Education

(DOE), which is keen to get pre-k programs in all public school districts by 2019, will provide up-front funding to the tune of $1,098,236.

The first-year budget she submitted for the program is $1,027,200 — leaving the district with a profit of $71,036.

That sounded good to most members of the school board, who voted 9-1 at their Dec. 18 meeting to launch the program next fall.

The lone holdout was Mike Mosher of Kennebunk.

“There is no question to my mind as to the benefits to the kids of preschool,” Mosher said. “But it seems to me this will become a taxpayer-funded program within three years. This is still a very easy vote for me when it comes to low-and-moderate income kids, because I feel they deserve the same opportunity that kids from higher income families receive. Where I struggle is, how do I ask for a fixed-income family to pay to support this when some in our district are more than capable of sending their kids to private preschool.”

Unlike in some school districts, which offer a limited number of pre-k spots to low-income families only, sometimes resorting to a lottery system when there are more applicants than opening, RSU 21’s pre-k offering, while voluntary, will be open to all 4-year-olds in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Arundel.

“We’re here to provide them with the best education possible, and this proposal passes all of the straight-face tests for me,” said board member Brad Huot, of Kennebunk, offering a counterpoint to Mosher’s view. “Yes, we cannot predict if in two or three years whether this will still be revenue-generating, or even revenue-neutral, but I think we have to go by the information we have here. I don’t think we can make a decision based on what might or might not happen.”

Hawes, meanwhile, offered three reasons for “investing” in a universal, public pre-k program, starting with a claim that it will actually increase local property values, as well as the overall, taxbase, because it will act like a magnet on new residents. Secondly, she said, capturing students at a younger age will lead to “a substantial return in terms of lower special ed rates later on.”

“And third, the latest research is saying is that for every $1 spent on a public preschool program, your return is $2, because you have more people graduating from high school, more going on to college, more people getting higher-level jobs when they leave college. So, whether they stay in the Kennebunks or not, that’s a societal benefit because we all pay taxes to the federal government,” Hawes said.

At a school board workshop in early November on the pre-K topic, Hawes said that in 2016 kindergarten screening, 20 percent of incoming 5-year-olds at Kennebunk Elementary School were flagged with some form of delayed development in one or more areas, as were 29 percent at Kennebunkport Consolidated School, and 10 percent at the Mildred L. Day Elementary School in Arundel. This alone, she said, indicated some level of need.

However, Arundel resident Jack Reetz, a frequent audience member at school board meetings, was dubious, despite being known as a big booster of local schools. With no more than 30 percent of incoming students flagged as not ready for kindergarten, Reetz suggested the need may not be quite so dire.

“So, it isn’t clear to me that all kids in the district need pre-k,” he said. “Everybody says this is great, it will be wonderful, but what will the real benefit be and is it truly measurable? Is that a real, necessary investment? From a parent’s standpoint I understand, but is it fair for the taxpayers to take that on?”

“If this was being paid for solely by the taxpayers of this district, would this be coming up for a vote tonight?” Reetz asked, somewhat rhetorically.

“I’m not sure my vote would change,” said board chairman MaryBeth Luce, of Arundel. “I personally would make an investment in this program, And I went into this as maybe the biggest naysayer on the [11-member exploratory] committee.”

That committee estimates 112 preschool students will enroll in the program in year one. On Oct. 31, Hawes submitted an estimate of 160 to the state. Her program budget calls for 10 classrooms of 16 students, each, attended by a teacher and an ed tech.

Hawes said she is expecting to pay the preschool teachers an average of $58,000, each, in salary and benefits, with $33,000 for the ed techs.

Because RSU 21 does not accept private preschool experience as a resume booster, most new hires for the pre-k program will likely start at the bottom of the district’s payscale, she said. However, that should not act as a drag on applications, she said, even from those who only have experience in private preschools, she added.

“They have probably, quite frankly, been making significantly less than $58,000 in their previous position,” Hawes said.

The program will also need a director, at a cost of $80,000, which counts about $20,000 in benefits.

“Do we feel we will attract a substantial and qualified director with a $60,000 salary?” asked Kennebunk school board member Matthew Fadiman.

“That’s only an estimate until we know who we are hiring, and also how many kids we have,” Hawes said, adding that an earlier projection of $100,000 in salary and benefits had assumed the new pre-K program director might also serve as an assistant principal at Kennebunk Elementary School, where the program will be housed.

Also rolled into the year-one cost structure is $5,600 for technology, $14,000 for furniture, and $17,600 for curriculum development and assessment. All lines are significantly reduced from the earlier November estimate, in part because all are now figured as payments on five-year lease agreements, in order to limbo under the state funding line.

“Originally, when we thought we were getting more from the state, we thought, well, let’s just go ahead and buy it all up front, but this is actually more in line with our regular practices,” Hawes said.

Completely excised from the program budget is $8,700 that would have paid to shuttle preschoolers to Kennebunk Elementary School from Kennebunkport. All preschoolers will ride the regular bus routes with older students, but those in Kennebunk and Arundel already pass by KES, while an new link will be needed for bus routes that ends at Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

Hawes said current kindergarten enrollment at KCS cames to just nine children who live in Kennebunkport, while projections for the next two years top out at 13. Based on that and the expectation that many Port parents will continue to use private preschool care, or else drive their children to KES themselves, Hawes said she determined the proposed shuttle would likely not be needed.

“If it ends up that we only have one or two kids who need transporting, we probably are not going to run a shuttle,” she said.

The need to find some cost savings before Monday’s final vote came as a result of “inaccurate information” provided by state education officials, Hawes said.

Initially, she had reported the state’s contribution for pre-k enrollees would run to 1.5 times the state subsidy paid for older students under Maine’s Essential Programs and Services funding model.

“It’s actually 1.15 percent. So, that’s a significant difference,” Hawes said.

Also, she learned, 15 percent gets knocked off that subsidy for any Kennebunkport students, per the EPS formula, because of the high property values in that town.

“We are still going to get money from the state, it’s just not as much as we thought it would be, so we had to sort of spread out some of our up-front spending in order to make this work,” Hawes said.

To make room for pre-K classes at KES, third-graders will likely move to the Sea Road School, depending on how enrollment numbers shake out in January.

As designed, the new program will run for the entire school day, Monday through Friday. However, parents will have the option of picking up their children after lunch. But even a half-day will be a help, program supporters say.

According to the report “Annual Growth, Catch Up Growth,” children enter kindergarten with a four-year range of ability in reading, and a two-year gap in math. That disparity can last 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.

“Trying to move that entire range to a level where everyone is growing, and the range is shrinking, is a really hard job,” Luce said. “It may be one of the hardest jobs we have in our district.

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

Return to top