GORHAM – With no all-day kindergarten included in the proposed Gorham school budget, supporters of the idea are now on a mission to convince voters to reject the $32.2 million spending plan at the polls next week.
“We’re strongly urging citizens of Gorham to vote down the school budget,” said Stacy Smith, of Timothy Drive, a member of the All-Day Kindergarten for All Kids Committee, who has a daughter entering kindergarten this fall.
Proponents of instituting all-day kindergarten packed the Gorham Town Council Tuesday for an emotional meeting. But, the council, with its hands tied, approved the budget for the schools as submitted.
“We cannot tell them (school department) to add a program,” Town Councilor Michael Phinney said.
Residents will have their say Tuesday, June 12, in a referendum validation of the school budget.
After the council voted 6-1 (John Pressey opposed), Kelli Deveaux, a leading spokeswoman for the citizens’ group, said the organization wants to continue working with the council and school committee about the issue.
“We remain hopeful and determined,” Deveaux said.
Parents and other residents appear ready to rally on Election Day.
“We’re encouraging residents of Gorham to vote no on the school budget, hoping that it will provide an opportunity for the school board to prioritize all-day kindergarten and find funding for this on the 2012-2013 school budget,” Kelly Smith of Running Springs Road, said Wednesday. “We want it now.”
If voters reject the budget, it would return to the school board for revision, though that would not guarantee all-day kindergarten would be included.
Prior to the council vote, James Hager, school committee chairman, announced a special forum involving a school department sub-committee and interested parties on Tuesday, Sept. 18, to address all-day kindergarten.
“That’s what we can promise now,” Hager said.
“Jim threw out an olive branch,” Town Councilor Matthew Robinson said.
The council also approved 6-1 (Robinson opposed) a $12,991,693 municipal budget that includes a $843,230 county tax.
The $45.2 million combined school and municipal budget jumps the town’s tax rate for each $1,000 of valuation by an estimated 22 cents, from $16.30 to $16.52. Taxes on a home valued at $200,000 would increase $44.
The school budget, up $1 million and representing a 3.3 percent increase, accounts for 19 cents of the town’s 22-cent tax rate hike. Gorham taxpayers share to support schools would rise $429,304, from $13,260,760 to $13,690,064.
Comments in the budget public hearing were focused on the all-day kindergarten issue, which proponents have said would cost $382,000. The Gorham district now has a half-day program for kindergarten students.
The All-Day Kindergarten for All Kids Committee recently launched a petition drive and have a Facebook page supporting its efforts. Kelly Smith said 600 signatures were gathered in one week. She said the elementary schools have space to house all-day kindergarten.
“We are frustrated by lack of commitment,” Smith said.
Pam Mercier, of Herrick Drive, said, “I whole-heartedly support all-day kindergarten. I urge you to work with the school board to make all-day kindergarten a priority.”
Sarah Plummer, of Brookwood Drive, has a daughter starting kindergarten in the fall.
“It’s not fair for our kids,” Plummer said about not implementing an all-day program. “Think about their future.”
In his remarks to the Town Council, resident Brian Deveaux asked, “If now is not the right time, when will it be the right time?”
A Gorham resident and a former Portland superintendent, Mary Jo O’Connor, said a half-day program is old paradigm.
“I’m here to support this group of parents,” said O’Connor, once an elementary teacher at Narragansett School.
While acknowledging that Superintendent Ted Sharp is limited by budget constraints, Noah Miner, a parent and a former town councilor, said half-day kindergarten is a relic. Miner said an all-day program would give students a jumpstart.
“Add the money to the budget tonight,” Miner urged the Town Council. “It needs to be done, it’s necessary.”
“We can cut the school budget,” but can’t add to it, Robinson said.
One resident spoke in opposition to the all-day plan. Ruth Marshall, of North Gorham Road, felt that the proposal seemed to be for parental convenience and it wouldn’t be reasonable to change the budget at this point.
Town Councilor Matt Mattingly concurred the council could not increase the budget submitted by the school department.
“I wish we had other choices before us,” Mattingly said. “I appreciate hearing the passion of those who spoke.”
The All-Day Kindergarten for All Kids Committee posted this message Wednesday on its Facebook page: “What an amazing group of intelligent, passionate and powerful people showed last night in support of [all-day kindergarten]. Now we need to rally and VOTE NO on the budget next Tuesday at the usual polling stations. This will give the School Board and the Town Council another opportunity to show that [all-day-kindergarten] is a priority and find the funding because they will workshop together and find a way!! Let’s do this for 2012.”