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Waterford-New London Friendship School agreement ends, school open to all applicants

Waterford — The pre-kindergarten and kindergarten magnet school that serves as a common thread between the Waterford and New London school districts will be open next year to applicants from any town, though the possibility of a tuition charge for parents of pre-kindergarten students there remains uncertain.

After the Waterford Board of Education announced last spring that it would be ending an 11-year agreement with New London to help fund The Friendship School, the organization that runs the school has opened the admissions process to all towns, and officials said some parents of pre-kindergarten students may soon have to pay tuition for their children to attend next year.

Since the school opened in 2005 on Rope Ferry Road in Waterford, LEARN, the regional magnet school provider that administers the school, has not charged tuition to parents of pre-kindergarten students, although it is allowed to do so under state statutes.

Instead, it has drawn from state education grants, magnet school and pre-kindergarten funding, plus a yearly tuition payment from the New London and Waterford school budgets. 

That tuition amount has varied over the years depending on state budgeting for education, but in 2016 it was about $100,000 per district.

The agreement was touted as a unique “urban-suburban” solution to expanding free pre-kindergarten in Connecticut that would bring together students from the two districts and form early friendships between children of varying income levels and backgrounds. About 100 kindergarten and 400 pre-kindergarten students attend the school, split almost evenly between Waterford and New London residents.

During budget negotiations for the 2016-17 fiscal year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state legislators cut state money for magnet schools, stressing LEARN's budget. And overall education grants from the state were cut by more than $30 million statewide, with Waterford bearing a larger blow than many other towns.

The cuts prompted an increase from $100,000 to about $350,000 in Friendship School tuition costs for both Waterford and New London, out of total education budgets of $45.9 million in Waterford and $64.6 million in New London.

Frustrated by the 2016 state cuts, and wary of the threat of more cuts in the future, the Waterford school board announced in June that it would no longer participate in the funding agreement. It continued to help fund the school during the current fiscal year, but said in a letter to LEARN and New London school officials in June 2016 that it would end its participation in the agreement effective June 2017.

Waterford School Board Chairwoman Jody Nazarchyk, who also is on the governing board for the Friendship School, said this week that the vote to announce an end to the agreement was unanimous, but made with regret.

Nazarchyk said she hoped in the year between the announcement and the end of the agreement that state lawmakers and officials would be able to negotiate more state funding for LEARN and The Friendship School.

“I was hoping we would be able to work something out," she said. "I think they’ve been very irresponsible with this.”

But the prospect of state aid alleviating stresses on the LEARN and local budgets is becoming less likely, leaving LEARN to start looking for other ways to fund the pre-kindergarten program.

Families from both districts still will be able to apply and enter a lottery for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten spots, now joined by families in other Connecticut towns, LEARN Director Eileen Howley said.

The districts still will be obligated under federal and state law to cover the tuition cost of any kindergarten student age 5 or older who is accepted to the school, as well as all students’ special education costs, Waterford Superintendent Thomas Giard said.

But depending on the level of education funding in the state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1, LEARN may need to make up lost revenue from the districts and the state by charging tuition for pre-kindergarten children in families who fall above a certain income level.

Because school for children under the age of 5 is not federally mandated, Howley said state statutes allow the organization to charge tuition to eligible families of 2- to 4-year-olds. While the Waterford-New London agreement has been in effect, the two districts have covered any costs not covered by state dollars, and eliminated the need for tuition from families.

A FAQ section on The Friendship School's website addresses the possibility of fees for pre-kindergarten next year, and says the tuition will not be more than $400 per month per child and will be based on the income levels of students' parents or caregivers.

With the agreement ending in June, and indications of even bigger future cuts to education funding looming in Malloy’s budget proposal next month, how LEARN will continue to fund its pre-kindergarten costs remains unclear.

Kate McCoy, the New London school district’s Executive Director of Strategic Planning, Government and Media Relations, said it would be premature to say whether New London’s school board will budget money to cover any tuition fees charged to city parents of pre-kindergartners who want to attend The Friendship School.

"New London seeks to ensure that there's free access to all families who are interested in attending, based on state aid available," she said.

New London offers free pre-kindergarten at the Early Childhood Center at Harbor School, and McCoy said the district will be expanding its pre-kindergarten options next year using a state Smart Start grant.

The Friendship School is the only free pre-kindergarten option in Waterford.

Howley said the school is accepting applications for the 2017-18 school year.

“We’re hoping the families that are there will want to continue to stay there,” she said.

m.shanahan@theday.com

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