Niagara Gazette

April 22, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield school board looking at cutting kindergarten to close budget gap

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Sometimes the world can be filled with unending complexity. A recent Niagara-Wheatfield School Board meeting served as a microcosm of such philosophy.

It kicked off shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday with a stirring five minute video showcasing an Errick Road Elementary kindergarten class performing its group play. It was followed by a round of applause – with a few people standing at the same time – as children from that class tried their hardest not to be embarrassed by the crowd.

The meeting ended an hour later with the crowd shocked and the school board directing its superintendent to explore the option of ending kindergarten in the district as a way to close a $1 million budget gap heading into next year.

“Based on the numbers, we’re looking at about 20 full-time equivalency positions we need to cut,” board member Christopher Peters said. “I think we need to look at cutting kindergarten. That’s 15 FTEs. It’s not a mandated item and we have to consider what affects the least amount of students.”

In his comment, Peters clarified his statement, saying while kindergarten only affects one grade level, music, art and sports affect children over many. But parents at the meeting were flabbergasted, despite any additional thoughts. And they let Peters, board President Steve Sabo and the rest of the seven-member group know exactly how they felt about the idea.

They saw proposing the loss of kindergarten as a potential deal breaker. They said it has the ability to affect every single student in the district, not just one grade level like how Peters originally interpreted his request. It brought one parent to tears as he stood at the microphone, distraught by the choice the district was presenting.

“I have three children and your proposals have hit all three,” Vince Capoluco said. “One’s going to go into kindergarten, one’s a second-grader who loves music and the third is a middle school student who’s a great athlete. Which do I pick? I’ll tell you which, my kindergartner. Because I want her to have the same chance the other two had. I get emotional for my kindergartner.”

Capoluco said he’s already considering his options regarding selling his home in the district because of the financial situation. But eliminating kindergarten would be the final straw, he said.

Other parents, like Angela Desai, decided to combat the district’s request with fear, a tactic which appeared to register with the board, based on facial expressions. Desai said future students in the district would suffer immensely, which would lead parents to consider another alternative.

Her focus was on New York state’s controversial and mandatory assessments, which were just completed for English Language Arts in grades 3-8 Thursday. She said kindergarten lays the framework for the successes and failures of children later in schooling and eliminating it would hinder development, pushing back instruction a full year.

And when it comes time to take the state’s mandated tests in third grade, the students are going to be at a complete disadvantage compared to those in other districts, she said.

“I think this is completely unreasonable,” parent Angela Desai said. “Kindergarten is the foundation for everything the district does later in life. You’ll be sending children into first grade without the basic skills they’ll need. And second grade will be devoted to teaching first grade material. So, with these state tests, in third grade they’ll be so far behind what’s expected of them. If you think the tests this year are making the kids sick and worried, wait until you cut kindergarten.”

But despite the pleas from parents, the district’s board and administrators must find a way to reduce district proposed expenses from a projected $63.7 million to $62.7 million to match the money it’s expecting in revenues. The district is coming off last year’s massive layoffs of more than 60 staff members and 40 teachers. Officials are concerned the district can’t handle more.

So Peters and his fellow board members will continue to investigate possible fixes, including the elimination or reduction of kindergarten, to solve the crisis. No matter what, Sabo said, the students are going to feel it now.

“We’re at a point now where every single cut we make is going to affect students,” Sabo said. “It’s like a ripple effect. If New York state would fully fund education like it’s promised to do, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

As for Peters, he said making the request was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.