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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Boards Battle Over School Budget Proposal

By Jennifer Connic

The Westport Board of Education and Board of Finance clashed tonight over the proposed 2007-08 school budget.

Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon has proposed an $89.2 million 2007-08 budget, which is a 8.8 percent, or $7.2 million, increase over the current budget.

The discussion ranged from a battle over all-day kindergarten to the needs at Staples High School, but the two board chairmen argued when Board of Finance Chairman Jeffrey Mayer suggested the school board hold off its budget vote.

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on its proposed budget on Feb. 5, which is its next scheduled meeting one week from tonight.

Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Parmelee said the board is not necessarily happy with the proposed increase.

“It has caused us a great deal of concern and angst,” she said. “We didn’t do a happy dance singing the praises of being able to ask for more money.”

Mayer said for many years the municipal departments deferred costs while the schools experienced growth and large budget increases.

Now those departments – including the fire department and human services department – are trying to catch up, he said, and the finance board needs to help give them the resources they need.

“I urge you to not vote next week until you hear what the town wants,” he said. “Then reconsider what you’re asking.”

Parmelee said while municipal departments held back on costs, where was the Board of Finance to tell those officials to spend more on the things they needed?

“We are responsible for education,” she said. “We’re not responsible for plowing the roads. We’re not responsible for the basketball program at parks and recreation. We are not dependent on what the town needs. We come with what we believe our education system needs.”

The board probably will not come forward with the currently proposed budget, Pamelee said, but the board is not going to wait until the selectman’s budget is completed.

Tonight’s discussion started with a battle over Landon’s proposal for an all-day kindergarten program.

Several parents attended tonight’s meeting and expressed their displeasure with Landon’s proposal for a program where kindergartners attend school for three full days and two extended days.

Following the discussion, several Board of Finance members asked how the proposal to expand the kindergarten program could not cost more.

Landon said the kindergarten teachers are already hired and work full days even though school for kindergartners ends at 1:15 p.m. rather than 3:15 p.m.

Mayer said he has seen dozens of parents and professionals speak to the issue of expanding the kindergarten day, and the parents are not urging for the program to be expanded.

“Parents want to see the resources invested back into our current programs rather than expanding into uncharted territory,” he said.

Landon shot back saying that the term “uncharted territory” is “misinformed” because neighboring school districts have a form of a full-day program.

Mayer said he has a hard time believing the kindergarten program could be expanded without there being any additional cost.

The two boards also discussed how school officials are tackling an anticipated enrollment increase, specifically at Staples High School.

Landon has proposed eight new teaching positions at Staples for an anticipated increase of approximately 100 students.

Kevin Connolly, a finance board member, said school officials need to prioritize and ask if they can offer everything from high-end classes to the lower-level classes for struggling students.

“I know we can’t really cut teachers at the middle schools and elementary schools, but perhaps you can do a more aggressive redistribution at Staples,” he said.

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Posted 01/31/07 at 02:42 AM  Permalink



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To Board Members,

I just finished reading Mr. Elliot’s letter “Why I
Believe in a Longer Kindergarten Program”. I take
issue with most of his assertions.

The first being, “This proposal has the support of
Westport’s kindergarten teachers and elementary
principles…” How does he know that? Was this
conclusion reached anonymously, were all 24 or so
kindergarten teachers asked in a confidential survey, as not to reveal their identity so it wouldn’t be held against them, knowing full well this has been their Superintendent’s pet project. Or was his conclusion reached when in a meeting, he asked, “so everyone backs me on this, right” and of course, regardless of their opinion, no one raised their hand. Yet, he puts this forth as a unanimous decision with full support from all, no dissention. Yet, other kindergarten teachers (ones that are not under the employ of Mr. Landon) have expressed opinions counter to his. Amusing, since I’ve never known people in a group to agree completely on anything, not less something as personal and important as our children’s education. So none of these educational professionals have a different idea or opinion on how to reduce some of the
hurriedness other than this much longer day? Is that
what he’s saying?

Secondly, “Interestingly enough, a clear majority of
all preschool parents who responded to the…unbiased survey…favored the lengthened program”. Wow! That’s a real accomplishment, when in fact regardless of how you answered; the results would end with a majority. I would like to know, who worked on that survey with Glen Martin, what instructions were they given and how many drafts went back and forth and to whom, before it
was finally sent out. Not to mention, so many eligible parents did not receive it. Yet, again Mr. Landon declares, this is what the parents are in favor of. I have a saying, figures don’t lie, but liars figure. He also conveniently makes no mention of the other comments the “majority” of parents had, i.e. cut back on Spanish, computer, etc.

Thirdly, “...over one-third had attended preschool for
21 to over 30 hours in the year prior to
kindergarten.” For the record, this is not “preschool”
it is “daycare” and I sincerely hope he knows the
difference. Name me one “preschool” in the area that is over 30 hours per week? Go ahead, I’m listening. This is just another way he muddles the truth to make his points seem factual.

Fourthly, “This recommendation is “budget
neutral”...”. Well, that’s not what he said the last
time. And one can hardly believe, that in a year or
two, you won’t come back to the well for more budget for some “unforeseen” expenses’ to give “our children the best, blah, blah, blah…”  What if it really does have a financial impact greater than anyone could foresee, are we going to “take it away from the children” and go back to the extended day, I highly doubt that. It will probably be just a sorry at best. Not to mention that this is most likely an interim step to a five full day program and what will that cost be? 

And lastly, “There is no reason to believe that
Westport children have less stamina than those in
neighboring towns”. First, it’s not a question of
stamina, it’s about the quality of life that we as
parents seek for our 4 and 5 year old children. This
is a very precious time in their lives and we should
make it as special as we can for them. Making their
transition and introduction to kindergarten as much
fun and educational as possible, not something to be drudged. A 30 hour week, plus commuting, is as much as grown ups work in Europe, is this what we want for our 4 and 5 year old children.

In summary, I resent and feel misled by Mr. Landon’s assertions and conclusions that are nothing more than
speculation (“every-ones in agreement”) and flat out
manipulation (the so called “unbiased” survey). I have as much or more to gain from the full day kindergarten as anyone (I have a 5 and 3 year old) and I’m against it. My wife, who is a doctor and works part time, could easily benefit from a full day kindergarten, allowing her to work more. However, we choose not to, because we feel it’s not in the best interest of the children.

Mr. Landon has tried unsuccessfully twice before to
implement a full day kindergarten. I believe he has
learned from his failures and has crafted a plan from
each one to try and finally succeed, this time with a
different group of parents. Remember the movie
“Groundhog Day”? Same concept, different
circumstances.

To me it seems quite simple, the problem: Not enough time to teach the current curriculum (I wonder, was the curriculum overloaded as a back door attempt to go to a full day program?). One solution, make the day longer. Another solution, take away from the current curriculum. Still another solution, take a little less away from the current curriculum and extend the day just a bit more, say 45 minutes. Why must it be such a big step of two hours per day? Lets see how the children and the parents do with 45 minutes added to the day 5 days per week. Lets not make such great
changes and gamble with our children’s future, when
many concerned parents feel it is an excessive and
unnecessary schedule, which may negatively impact our young children’s view of school.

Westport schools and its educators are the best,
every parent I have spoken to thinks very highly,
and rightfully so, they’re all very proud of their
school system. For this I thank everyone involved, but credit also must be extended to the parents, who make the decisions that are in the best interest of their children. Westport parents are very involved and expose their children to many experiences and programs outside of school, which are just as important. Please don’t take this away from our kindergarten kids, please consider and debate all other options. Thank you in advance for your consideration on this proposal.

Sincerely, John Raho

Posted by John Raho on February 07, 2007 at 12:07 AM | #
 

Having followed the debate on full day kindergarten closely, I read WestportNow’s and John Rabo’s comments with interest.  I am against further extending the day for reasons discussed below.  While I believe we should give Dr. Landon the benfit of the doubt, I am also concerned about the completeness of some of the assertions he has made in defending his proposal. 

I am against extending the full day for some very basic reasons. 

First, including the bus ride, a very real and intense part of the kindergarten experience, the day would stretch to almost eight hours.  This is as long a day as many full time adult jobs and too much for a four or five year old child.  It is considerably longer than any preschool program of which I am aware.

Second, even proponents of full day kindergarten have not pointed to any long term benefits for full day kindergarten.  (Some positive results have been seen in communities in which levels of parent income, education, and learning content in the home are much lower than they are in Westport.) 

Third, the full day plan does not address (and exacerbates) the most fundamental developmental problems faced by young children in this day and age: lack of sleep and lack of unstructured play.  In short, child psychologists, pediatricians, and early education experts express much greater concern over these issues than they do over four and year olds inability to conjugate Spanish verbs properly.  I do not expect that my children would be permanently scarred by full day kindergarten. However, I do know they are likely to be more tired, less focused, more in need of decompression, and possibly less enthusiastic about going to school. 

Fourth, extending kindergarten to solve the “hurrying” problem creates more problems than it solves.  In a letter to one of the local papers, an assistant principal pointed out that, basically, four and five year olds just take a long time to do things and therefore we need to extend the day to stop having to hurry.  As the parent of two young children, I fully agree with her premise.  Employing an eight hour day, however, simply pushes the challenge of “not hurrying” out of the school and into the house.  Pediatricians recommend 11-12 hours or more of sleep for four and five year olds.  (Few get that much, as discussed in the above paragraph.)  Adding two hours to the school does not merely reduce non-school time from eighteen to sixteen hours; it reduces waking hours outside of school from roughly six to four.  After accounting for the time it takes my daughter to get dressed, decide what she wants to eat, and pick up her toys, there would be little time left over for play dates or parental reading – unless of course we “hurry” them.  The solution to “hurrying”, to the extent it is a problem, is to take modules out of the curriculum. 

I appreciate that many intelligent and thoughtful people disagree with my arguments and / or priorities, including parents, teachers, principals, and Dr. Landon.  However, for the benefit of an open and honest debate, I would like to note the following. 

First, Dr. Landon has described the survey distributed to certain parents as reflective of the “widely supportive” views of the community and as unbiased.  Independent of the poor construction of questions and inconsistent distribution patterns, the most obvious problem with the survey is that it was sent out before any intense discussion on the subject.  While this is not the oddest survey approach I have seen, our superintendent is mistaken to interpret a preliminary “straw poll” as reflective of the deeper, more thoughtful opinion our community can reach after serious debate.  “Votes” or preferences registered after debate, not before, are what is meaningful. 

Surveys are extremely difficult to construct and the problem with the timing of the kindergarten survey was compounded by question structure.  At the most basic level, a more proper, unbiased survey would have asked, “Should the kindergarten day (a) be extended further; (b) be reduced; or (c) stay the same.”  As asked, particularly with two of three choices indicating a preference for full day options, the survey reflected an endorsement by the Westport school system’s leadership for some sort of a longer day.  I believe the vast majority of Westport parents generally have confidence in the superintendent’s judgment.  Thus for many respondents it was simply a reflection of their willingness to defer to his leadership on this issue rather than a careful consideration of the relative merits.  From my discussions, many of those who registered a preference for a full day alternative end up in disagreement with the administration when they personally and more carefully consider the facts and alternatives. 

Second, the unanimity of support for the extension expressed by school principals is not at all reflective of the broader diversity of views among principals and teachers inside and outside Westport.  In private conversations, many teachers have expressed a stronger level of disagreement with the proposed extension than even I do in this letter.  I do not doubt the sincerity of principals who have spoken in favor of an extension; however, I would expect that many of them would also be happy to consider other solutions (e.g., reduce Spanish and computer classes) to the “hurrying” problem if there was an inkling of support from Dr. Landon.     

Third, while full day kindergarten is not unusual I would not refer to it as “very mainstream”, as Dr. Landon did in his recent letter to the Board of Education.  While it has been employed in many of Westport’s neighboring towns, the vast majority of Connecticut school districts operate on a similar or shorter day length than Westport’s current system.  Of those with full day programs, for many (perhaps most, based on an informal screening) it is an optional full day and the curriculum is not tailored to it.  In a sense, they are extended day care alternatives rather than structured kindergarten programs.  Even in Weston, which Dr. Landon frequently cites, the two full days are for only one-half of the class at a time, meaning there is a more manageable student-teacher ratio for that period (unlike the Westport proposal). 

Finally, Dr. Landon says that the proposal is budget neutral.  While this is not the most important issue to me, it is most indicative of the opacity he has lent to the debate.  At its simplest, the three day proposal appears to require an additional 215 hours of teacher time per class (not including additional time for preparation or administrative support).  I have heard a number of explanations for where kindergarten teachers have been deployed after the kindergarten day ends. The most baffling was the one by Dr. Landon that they substitute for fifth grade teachers attending internal meetings, a function no longer needed because of a “change in the contract” in which these teachers agreed to do these meetings after school (if I heard correctly).  To be fair, I am not sure if Dr. Landon meant this literally or as a single illustrative example.  If it was meant literally, how many hours could these fifth grade teachers be in internal meetings?  If it was meant as a single example, what are the other responsibilities they assume?  (And, as an aside, I would really like to know how he was able to convince the teachers’ union to kick in hundreds of hours of additional services in a “budget neutral” manner.)  In any case, my sense is that our principals not only run very high quality schools but that they do it very efficiently and that these teachers are providing valuable services after the kindergarten day ends (e.g., supplemental reading initiatives).  So if the extension is budget neutral, it is only because of service cuts. 

In conclusion, there is no “free lunch”.  The full day proposal creates new problems.  The “problems” it solves (i) are not significant or (ii) can be solved more easily.

Posted by James Westphal on February 11, 2007 at 10:00 PM | #
 

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