By John Burton
FAIR HAVEN – Public school officials would like to have a full-day kindergarten program – and so would a number of parents.
But, adding the program is a lengthy process that involves finding additional funds and other considerations, officials said.
“The bottom line is that there is a process,” schools Superintendent Nelson Ribon said. “No matter how passionate people are about a particular program, in education we just can’t push a button.”
Board of Education President Mark Mancuso said, “It is something we’d like to do but it’s going to cost.”
Officials are investigating options to eventually institute the program.
Ribon and Mancuso said a petition has been circulating that seeks the expansion of the half-day kindergarten program to a full day but they are unaware of who has been circulating it. “I don’t know the people behind the petition. I never met them or discussed it with them,” Ribon said.
“I wish they would have asked us” before going ahead, Mancuso said. “I think they would be happy if they knew what was going on.”
What has been going on is the board has been discussing the possibility of establishing the program for a number of years, Mancuso said. More recently, the school board has established a strategic planning committee to investigate long-range objectives, among them the kindergarten program.
Another issue the committee is looking to address is the lack of space in the district’s facilities, an expensive and possible difficult undertaking that would require voter approval and additional funding.
The district, which has 1,018 students as of December, is one of 17 of the Monmouth County’s 57 districts to have an increase in enrollment over the last few years. The enrollment in Fair Haven increased 5.3 percent during the past decade, according to Ribon. This year’s fourth grade class has 140 students, the largest in district history. The average is 112 to115 students.
“We are busting at the seams,” Ribon said.
Moving ahead with a full-day kindergarten would mean finding a place to hold it, either off-site or by building additional space. Finding a site in Fair Haven that meets state requirements has been difficult; using an out-of-district site would mean securing transportation. Either scenario comes with a cost and still doesn’t address the already tight conditions in the district’s two schools.
The necessary hiring of additional teachers means spending roughly $70,000 a year per new teacher for salaries and benefits, Ribon said.
Another option would be to construct additional classrooms. Preliminary investigations for that put the price in “the seven-figure range,” Mancuso said. “That puts us between a rock and a hard place, because that’s not a cheap thing to do.”
The district has been in discussions with P.W. Moss and Associates, an engineering and project management firm that assisted Little Silver when that district wanted to expand its facility, Ribon said.
Getting the funding would mean a voter referendum to bond for such a project and winning state Department of Education (DOE) approval for the proposal.
Mancuso said it’s hard to predict how the community would respond. “Unfortunately, in these times people are looking to save every penny they can,” he said.
Should voters reject a referendum, that would mean officials would need to wait at least a year before approaching voters again, Ribon said.
When he became aware of the petition, Ribon acknowledged he should do more to keep the community aware of what school officials are considering and doing. To that end, he has decided to hold what could be monthly informal coffee chats. The first was conducted Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the Knollwood School where Ribon addressed the kindergarten issue.
In attendance was Lori Freund, who has a 6-year-old in kindergarten, a 3-year-old and 1-year-old twins. She was one of the parents who started the petition drive. She said many of the 391 who signed the petition feel strongly that it would be a benefit to families and the community. She said she felt encouraged what she heard from Ribon.
Ribon told the group that it would likely take about 2 ½ years to put the program in place – if the district moves forward with the facility work.
“My hope is my twins will see it,” Freund said. “If not, I still believe it is worth the fight.”
“I just feel you get a lot more with a full day (program),” said Nicole Halpern, who has a son in kindergarten and a 3-year-old daughter in preschool. “There’s a reason you see more and more districts are going that way.”
There is plenty of evidence that a full-day program is beneficial but there is none to indicate that Fair Haven students are at a disadvantage by not having it, Mancuso stressed.
“We’re certainly not seeing that in terms of the testing and data we’re looking at,” he said.
A decision to expand kindergarten should not be at the loss of other programs, he said.
Fair Haven has 70 children in its kindergarten class this year and another 30 in its paid pre-K program, Ribon said.
Statewide there are 510 districts with kindergarten programs, 376 of them are full-time. In Monmouth County of the 46 offering kindergarten, 33 have full-time and 10 have part-time programs. The other three offer a combination, according to the DOE.