Bristol Consolidated School’s proposal to add a public pre-kindergarten program cleared a major hurdle Feb. 14 as the education budget earned the unanimous recommendation of the Bristol Budget Committee.
The budget includes funding for the pre-K program, which would be the first of its kind in Lincoln County.
Central Lincoln County School System (AOS 93) Supt. Steve Bailey, Bristol School Committee Chairman David Kolodin and BCS Principal Jennifer Ribeiro fielded a number of questions from a cautious budget committee.
“Why is it good for Bristol and why should Bristol pay for it rather than the parents?” Richard Francis asked.
“To provide equity and opportunity for all students, some who might be able to pay and others who might not be able to pay,” Bailey said. The program would ensure all students enter kindergarten “equally prepared, regardless of what their economic status might be,” he said.
Budget committee member Jared Pendleton acknowledged the program’s potential, but said finding “the right person” to teach it “is key to whether this is successful or whether this is an expensive babysitting service.”
“It definitely is not just pre-school daycare,” Bailey said. “It definitely has a four-year-old curriculum program for both math and literacy.”
Rob Davidson, a member of the budget committee and a candidate for school committee, continued to stress, as he has since the earliest meetings about the proposal, the importance of quantifiable results.
Davidson asked if the school would change its curriculum for each successive grade as the students enter kindergarten with more skills.
“That’s one of the things that we would continue to look at,” Bailey said, an answer that didn’t satisfy Davidson.
“You work it out now so we know when we get something done, not ‘see how it goes,'” Davidson said.
Ribeiro said BCS students already have and will continue to have the option to progress at an accelerated pace as they are able.
Kolodin, the driving force behind the proposal from the outset, talked about his motivation to see the program succeed.
Kolodin mentioned test scores and hiring statistics that show American students lagging well behind students from other nations. He cited studies that point to higher high school graduation rates and lower crime rates among students who attend public pre-K programs.
Kolodin also talked about the socio-economic changes that require both parents, in most families, to work full time. “They’re really, I think, spending less time with their children,” he said.
“I see in the changing society that we have that parents need some assistance, not just dropping [their kids] off somewhere but a real, structured environment,” Kolodin said.
Eventually, budget committee chairman John Allan brought the discussion to a close. “If we keep going here those four-year-olds will be five by the time we get done,” he said.
The budget committee unanimously recommended the education budget as a whole and each of its subcategories.
Hanna told the committee about the arrest of former station manager Shawn Dinsmore (see “Former Bristol/South Bristol Transfer Station manager arrested” in this edition) but declined to discuss details, citing the ongoing investigation. He also introduced the new manager, David Poland.
“We are going to change the way we operate the transfer station on many levels,” Hanna said. “Hopefully we can all give David our full support.”
The Bristol/South Bristol Transfer Station Board of Directors, which consists of the Bristol and South Bristol selectmen, plans to meet monthly instead of quarterly for the foreseeable future, Hanna said.
The budget committee unanimously recommended the transfer station budget.
Pendleton, citing the department’s $12,000 loss last year and a perceived lack of long-term planning, advocated for hiring a manager and bringing the parks under the direct management of the selectmen.
A three-member elected body, the Bristol Parks and Recreation Commission, currently oversees 10 municipal properties and a $300,000 annual budget. Long-time Commissioner Gordon Benner manages the day-to-day operations of the parks.
“The parks are managing some of the biggest assets Bristol has and we really need to be in tune with it,” Pendleton said.
Hanna defended the department, calling last year’s budget shortfall an “anomaly,” and encouraged budget committee members to bring their concerns to the commission.
The budget committee eventually recommended the $5000 Olde Bristol Days item, 11-0-1. Terry Lowd, whose wife serves on the commission, abstained.
Budget committee members expressed doubt about the organization’s activities, administrative costs and sustainability. “I’m concerned about spending taxpayer money on something searching for a mission,” Pendleton said.
Francis and Mike Stevens defended the request.
“I would see [the $3000] as an investment in that exploratory effort that may have some benefits to the town in the future,” Stevens said. “From my point of view, I would support it this year to give them another year to try to find out the best use for that facility.”
Lowd serves on the non-profit’s board. “Weymouth House, as an entity, is a real asset in the community,” he said.
Pendleton acknowledged some accomplishments of the young organization. “I have a son who goes to the after school program and I think it’s excellent, but I haven’t seen anything else happen,” he said.
“I just can’t support it until it’s showing us something,” Pendleton said. In the past, the town has approved requests from nascent organizations that ultimately failed, he said, and he expressed concern about a repeat. “I think we have to be responsible with taxpayers’ money,” he said.
Al Sears’ motion to amend the amount to $1000 failed, however, and the original, $3000 request earned the recommendation of the committee by an 8-3-1 vote. Lowd abstained.
The budget committee unanimously recommended 22 additional budget categories or agency requests.
Pendleton, at the close of the nearly three-hour meeting, argued for the budget committee to take an increased role in town government in the future.
“We need to evolve into a more proactive group, a more involved group,” Pendleton said.
“I would welcome that,” Bristol Town Administrator Kristine Poland said. “I think it’s time to shake things up a little bit.”