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Parents decry loss of state money; Kindergarten cut could cost the town $500,000.

Byline: Linda Bock

NORTHBRIDGE - State Rep. George N. Peterson Jr., R-Grafton, is concerned that the town could lose almost half a million dollars in state aid next year if the full-day kindergarten program is cut.

"I'm concerned about the amount of Chapter 70 reduction next year if full-time kindergarten is cut," Mr. Peterson said last night. "Chapter 70 won't impact this year, but Northbridge could lose almost half a million dollars next year."

Kathleen Morrison, a parent of two young children, said she contacted Mr. Peterson last Wednesday, and he called her back Thursday morning. Before he called, she said, Mr. Peterson contacted the state Department of Education and got the same information concerned parents in town received when they did similar research.

Parents learned that Chapter 70 state aid funds for Northbridge would be cut in half because the program was going to be cut from full- to half-day permanently. School officials warned taxpayers before the May 15 override election that once the grant for full-day kindergarten was lost, it would be hard to get it back.

"He was right on target with his numbers: $1,700 per student equals $340,000 (Chapter 70); plus he knew we'd be losing the $134,100 (full-day kindergarten) grant," Ms. Morrison said.

Mr. Peterson said he realizes the decision whether to cut full-day kindergarten is up to Superintendent Paul K. Soojian and the School Committee.

"Northbridge is in a very difficult situation," Mr. Peterson said, referring to the tight fiscal 2008 budget and recent reductions. "There's no question about that. But I'm concerned that sacrificing this program will cause even more pain down the road."

Mr. Peterson suggested that the town apply for a "pothole" grant, or a foundation reserve award, from the state. The funds are unrestricted state aid and may be used for any municipal purpose. He said there was no guarantee the town would receive a grant, but Northbridge might have a good chance because of its financial predicament.

A growing number of parents are pressing town and school officials to explain to taxpayers why cutting full-day kindergarten will not save the town money, but will end up costing taxpayers a significant amount of money.

Parents in favor of full-day kindergarten have been relentless in their efforts to contact state and local officials, as well as pressure the School Committee to hold an emergency summer meeting to discuss several issues and to see if a way to save full-day kindergarten can be found. Parents bombarded School Committee members with e-mails, and Dianne Mimmo, one of the organizers of the efforts, appealed to the Board of Selectmen last week. After the meeting, Ms. Mimmo said Town Manager Theodore D. Kozak and Selectman John A. Davis sent letters to the school board on behalf of the parents. Some School Committee members could not commit to meetings because of their vacation schedules.

The efforts were successful, and advocates of full-day kindergarten are hoping that parents and concerned taxpayers will attend the School Committee's meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow in Town Hall.

"I really encourage all parents of school-age children, not just parents of kindergarten-age children, to attend the meeting," Ms. Mimmo said yesterday. "It's important for everyone to understand the impact this cut will have on the whole school system for years to come."

After the failed $3.7 million override in May, the following Northbridge public school cuts were announced: The Aldrich Early Childhood Center will be closed, class sizes will increase dramatically and high school sports will be eliminated. As many as 36 children will be in each third-grade class when school resumes in the fall, there will be no bus transportation for students in Grades 7-12 and the full-day kindergarten program will be replaced with half-day kindergarten.

The School Committee approved a $25.8 million budget request earlier this year. The estimated Chapter 70 revenue from the state is $14 million, while the minimum local contribution is $7.3 million. Grants and school choice revenues are estimated at $1.5 million, for total estimated revenue of nearly $22.9 million. That left a $2.9 million shortfall. The town budget required that the schools cut another $2 million, for a total deficit of about $5 million. If the $3.7 million override had passed, $3.2 million would have gone to the schools for fiscal 2008.

School officials have said it would cost approximately $278,000 to fund full-day kindergarten, but Ms. Mimmo and others contend that the real number is closer to $200,000. Ms. Mimmo hopes there will be a good discussion at the meeting and officials and taxpayers can reach a solution, although she believes the issue is a dead-end topic for some School Committee members.

"But I have to believe the town will come up with the funds to preserve the future state aid," Ms. Mimmo said.
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 17, 2007
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