Can Wilton afford kindergarten?

Parents for Responsible Education

Ready, Set, Go: The importance of planning is best defined by these three words.

Change the sequence to: “Ready, Go…Set” and everyone realizes mistakes can happen.

The Board of Education (BOE) forgot this basic lesson when four of six members voted to end Extended Day Kindergarten. By casting their votes, four Board members ignored Board policies in place for 40 years. Board policies define what the Board has to do to get “Ready.” They weren’t “Ready,” but they voted anyway.

It’s not just kindergartners who got hurt. On March 7th, first and second graders lost their para support. The BOE and administration have not publicized this. When the smoke clears, Wilton taxpayers will be stuck paying for the damage. Fixing mistakes like this gets expensive.

It all could have been avoided if the BOE followed Board Policy/Regulation 6141. The superintendent is required to prepare a detailed 11-section report before the first Board review, including long-term costs.

How would report 6141 have helped? Section 6C, Impact Data, requires identification of how one change, in this case Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK), will affect other programs like first and second grade reading.

When the Board began its FDK review in November, the members didn’t have this report. Until last month the Board had no idea its Full-Day Kindergarten plan would force an end to another program.

Policy 6141 is designed to avoid collateral damage. By policy, the Board should have had a separate 6141 Report prepared to assess how ending para reading support would affect first and second graders.

You have to wonder, “Can Wilton remain one of the top 10 school districts if this is how the Board conducts business?”

The first mistake was when the Board put FDK in the budget before it was reviewed, let alone approved. That sounds backwards — most people want to see the facts first, then decide.

The Board assumed the administration’s FDK proposal was “perfect.” The administration claimed it had been working on FDK for three years. What could they have possibly missed? As it turns out, quite a bit.

The Board never considered “details.” Parents did. But by then, the budget was set. The Board’s FDK budget was based on a faulty premise: 244 children would each spend eight and a half additional hours in class each week — a 35% increase in school time — staff support could be cut and costs decreased.

Parents were the first to notice practical details weren’t considered. For example, the number of weekly kindergarten lunches will increase by 250%, but there are fewer staff to supervise. Will teachers skip their lunches to supervise the lunchroom? And what about after lunch? FDK adds the equivalent of 49 kindergarten students, but their budget even cut supplies. Didn’t anyone consider toilet paper?

The more serious issues concerned teaching quality. In Extended Day the teachers work full-time, but half the class goes home so the other half gets intensive small-group instruction with the teachers. When the students and teachers are both full-time, the small class and low student-to-teacher ratios are lost. For decades educators have argued small classes work best, especially for young children. How did that get missed here?

Within 30 days of parent review, the administration conceded it needed seven full-time paraprofessionals to support FDK. Teachers brought in to tout FDK told the Board they wanted full-day para support (not just 90 minutes) but their opinions were greeted by laughs from the Board. Here’s why.

The Board’s FDK budget didn’t have seven paras for FDK. They cut Miller-Driscoll paras months earlier. The only way to support FDK was to strip all paras from first and second grade. Or go to the Board of Finance and admit mistakes.

Have the full costs been communicated to taxpayers? Every other town in Connecticut has been told FDK costs more  — about $200,000 more.  What is Wilton’s “magic” where we can send students to school for more time and less money? The administration’s calculations don’t include full-time employee salaries/benefits, lunchroom supervision or savings by running buses efficiently. Add those up, and the cost of FDK exceeds Extended Day by $175,000!

What upper-grade school programs will Wilton lose to fund FDK?

On March 7th, four Board members voted for collateral damage rather than admitting their errors. Despite the trumpets about Full Day, no one has told first and second grade parents how FDK will affect their children. And no one has told taxpayers how FDK will increase their mill rate for years to come.

Ms. Lowthert and Dr. Cunningham are directors of Parents for Responsible Education (PRE). They may be reached at PREWilton@live.com.