Milton 4K to begin in fall, but likely with fewer students

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Monday, May 16, 2011
— The Milton School District’s fledgling 4-year-old-kindergarten program will be coming out of the gates this fall with fewer students than anticipated, district officials said.

Jeanne Smith, who is the district’s 4K principal, said the program, which is optional, has about 135 students registered next school year.

“For a first year pre-k (4K) program, it’s not a bad number,” Smith said. “We’d like to have more, but it’s a good start.”

Still, it’s about 40 students shy of the 175 students the district had projected the program would see in its first year. That estimate was based on district kindergarten enrollments last year and state averages for 4K enrollments, district officials have said.

Smith said that registration for 4K remains open and the district estimates the program could pick up another 10 to 15 students from families who are moving to the area this summer or who haven’t yet heard about the program.

According to Smith and Director of Business Services Mary Ellen Van Valin, the district could address the probable enrollment shortfall by slimming the number of 4K sections it had planned to offer.

That would likely mean the district could fill as few as four and a half of the six 4K teacher positions the district had listed as “posted and unfilled” in an earlier staffing memo, Smith said. Van Valin said such a reduction would lower the approximate $725,000 in startup costs for the program.

The Milton School Board last December approved a district plan for a half-day “community-based” 4K program that will partner with local preschool and daycares, which will house most of the classes and provide classroom aides.

The district had planned to pay for most of the program’s startup costs through a $1 million windfall the district had anticipated would come through a forced teachers union insurance change the district won last year in arbitration.

But education cuts in the proposed state biennial budget unveiled earlier this year created the threat of sudden budget gaps for schools, leaving Milton and other school districts statewide scrambling to galvanize staff employment contracts and find money for programs amid financial uncertainty.

Van Valin said the school board is still reviewing whether savings from anticipated staff retirements, increased employee insurance and pension contributions and revenue from federal job funds will be enough to balance the district’s budget, which includes costs for the new 4K program.

The 4K program will run at a deficit in its first two years. After that, district officials say the program will start paying for itself and could even begin turning a profit, mainly from a boost in state aid payouts linked to enrollment increases.

District officials say they believe 4K enrollments will outpace enrollment losses expected in other grade levels—at least next school year. The program is expected to bring an overall enrollment increase of 55 to 65 students in 2011-2012, said Van Valin.

That’s significant, because revenue limits for schools are based partly on a three-year rolling average of student enrollment. If enrollment trends stay steady and state funding models remain unchanged, 4K could become a tool that will help the district stave off sagging enrollments, officials have said.

Smith said she hopes that all students eligible for 4K get registered.

“I hope we reach every child in the district who really truly needs 4K so that we can level the playing field for them in the future,” said Smith.

Last updated: 5:12 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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