CHELMSFORD -- The potential for full-day kindergarten in Chelmsford schools, an idea that has become a hot-button topic after years of consideration, has not disappeared since school officials decided not to begin offering the service for the coming school year.
Superintendent of Schools Frank Tiano has included $1 million across a four-year span beginning in fiscal 2016 devoted to starting the long-planned full-day kindergarten program. Costs for implementing full-day kindergarten will also be one of three fiscal issues, along with employee retirement costs and tax relief, to be studied and prioritized in regular meetings among the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee.
School officials had been studying the potential for implementing the program for about two years, but then decided earlier this year that the district wouldn't be able to afford the estimated $1 million needed to hire new teachers, among other costs.
"We're not walking away from (full-day) kindergarten. We brought forward a plan. It didn't work," School Committee Chairman Mike Rigney said at a meeting last week. "We're going to find a way to do it, and this is a good start toward that, I think."
Tiano's proposal calls for spreading out the costs over four years, setting aside $400,000 in fiscal 2016 and lower amounts each year through fiscal 2019.
"At no cost to parents," he said.
Starting the program without charging a fee has been the preference of school officials.
Supporters of offering kindergarten for a full day have said doing so would improve early education in Chelmsford schools and allow the town to join the vast majority of Massachusetts communities that offer the service. A survey of school districts in the state found 94 percent offered the full-day program last year, according to a recent presentation by Tiano.
Full-day kindergarten has also been made a priority by the state Department of Education, which began a grant program in 2000 for districts to implement the program. Since then, the percentage of Massachusetts students enrolled in full-day programs rose from 29 to 83.
Gov. Deval Patrick included in his fiscal 2015 budget proposal in January $3.1 million for full-day kindergarten in communities without them.
Nearly every other Lowell area community offers kindergarten full-day, some free and others at a charge. Billerica approved free full-day kindergarten for all students last month. It had previously offered full-day classes at a charge of $3,000.
Opponents in Chelmsford have likened full-day kindergarten to taxpayer-subsidized day care, School Committee member Nicholas DeSilvio said, but it's far more than that.
"That's ridiculous," he said of the claims.
The Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee in the coming months will also discuss full-day kindergarten. Officials will weigh costs of implementing the program with other fiscal needs, including tax relief and employee retirement costs known as "other post-employment benefits," such as health care.
A committee made up of representatives from those three boards was proposed, but selectmen said the fiscal issues were too important to not meet with the full board memberships. Selectmen are scheduled to vote at their meeting tonight whether to have the boards meet in full or appoint a committee of representatives.
"It's a very, very important discussion, and I think we should all be at the table," Selectman Janet Askenburg said.
Not all three -- kindergarten, tax relief and retirement costs -- can be given top priority, Town Manager Paul Cohen said.
"It's a matter of, 'OK, folks, what's it going to be?'" he said.
The average Chelmsford tax bill through last year has risen by 71 percent since 2000.
Unfunded liabilities for other post-employment benefits for the town have been estimated at $169 million.
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