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It was once again a crowded room for the Feb. 10 Board of Education meeting as Guilford residents awaited the board's vote on the proposed superintendent's budget, which includes a full-day kindergarten program. The room erupted in applause as Board Chair William Bloss announced that the budget was unanimously adopted.
With a proposed increase of 2.97 percent, which includes the $462,500 for full-day kindergarten, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman explained that even after the last public meeting, the budget proposal had been further trimmed, such as a decrease of $666,871 for insurance spending. An increase in requested custodial staff was reduced from two to one for a reduction of $77,000 from the requested increase, and the school system's technology lease request was backed off by $25,000. These and other cuts took the proposed budget, which was first presented to the board several weeks ago with a requested increase of 4.38 percent, to its current increase request of 2.97 percent, including full-day kindergarten.
Summing up the budget, Freeman explained, "We continue to offer unparalleled educational value here in Guilford, and we continue to do well for our students in a changing environment, which, on alternating days, I view as stressful or the most exciting time in my educational career. Our students perform exceptionally well for the investment we make in them."
Although the budget was accepted unanimously and all agreed that the work done on the numbers was outstanding, board member Susan Renner said she wished the full-day kindergarten line item were removed from the budget.
"I have been on the fence for a long time about this change, which will be so permanent," Renner said. "Right now I am not convinced it is the right thing. The dust has not settled yet on the Common Core changes and I would feel better voting on this issue in the future, once we see how full-day K works out for a while in Madison, which just started their program last year."
While no other board member opposed the full-day K program, there was some discussion about the issue. Board Member Amy Sullivan said that she does not oppose full-day K, but she does object to the overall pressure that is placed on the kindergarten students at such a young age.
"My hope is that the full-day schedule will see less stress for the students and the teachers will consider the need for play over academics at this age," Sullivan said.
Gary Kaisen supported the full-day change, likening the 2 ½-hour kindergarten day to an assembly line. Bloss, who recently sat in on a kindergarten class, said the half-day program can best be explained with one word, a "sprint."
"These kids and teachers are running full speed ahead from the moment school begins until it's time to leave-and by the way, it's not really 2 ½ hours, it's two hours," said Bloss, who said his perspective on full-day K changed after sitting in on the class.
"We have vetted all alternatives, we have gone over the numbers, read the studies, and in the end there are some decisions that are solely the board's to make; this is not one of them," said Bloss. "Ultimately this is a decision that has to be made by the community. It is not wise for me as a board member to not give the community the opportunity to vote on this issue."
He added that besides the issue of building the new Guilford High School, never before had he seen such community support for one program in town. He urged the public to keep an eye out for upcoming Board of Finance hearings and to continue to make their voices heard in support of the program if they want to see the budget passed.
The education budget next goes before the Board of Finance for review. It will then move on to a formal public hearing on Tuesday, March 4.