ALBANY - The handful of New York school districts without universal, full-day kindergarten programs may get extra state money to make it happen.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders pledged this week to include additional funding in next year's state budget for the few districts still offering half-day kindergarten programs.
The pledge came with few specifics and is non-binding, with details to be worked out during state budget negotiations that will begin in January.
But it gave school officials and education advocates hope that the state may finally overcome the financial and logistical challenges that have kept the remaining districts from transitioning to full-day instruction for some of the state's youngest students.
Last year, six of the state's nearly 700 school districts did not provide full-day instruction for all kindergartners, including North Rockland.
Jennifer Teichmann, a Stony Point mother of four involved with a parent group advocating for a full-day program, said the announcement was "very much appreciated."
"By including transitional full-day funding for the last six half-day kindergarten school districts in the governor's 2018 budget, our children will finally be on the path to a fair start," said Teichmann, adding the expansion would give children in those communities "an opportunity to be on a level playing field" with neighboring districts.
School districts across the state have steadily added full-day kindergarten over the past decade, when the state began offering one year of "transition" funding to school districts that switched from half-day programs.
But the prospect of transitioning to full-day programs caused fiscal strain for some districts, particularly those that struggled to find space in existing facilities for the expanded instruction.
That includes the Pittsford school district near Rochester, whose voters didn't approve a budget earlier this year that would have raised the property-tax levy by 4.7 percent to help fund a full-day kindergarten expansion. The budget needed approval from 60 percent of voters because it exceeded the state's property-tax cap; it got 54 percent.
In nearby Brighton, voters approved a $65 million facilities improvement plan this year that includes an addition to Council Rock Primary School to house full-day kindergarten. But full-day instruction isn't planned until 2021, when the construction is expected to be complete.
Rush-Henrietta, another Rochester-area district, will offer full-day kindergarten for the first time this coming school year.
The North Rockland district, meanwhile, is offering a one-year pilot program for the coming school year, providing full-day instruction for 66 kindergarten students.
The remaining two districts without full-day kindergarten are Washingtonville in Orange County and Shenedehowa in Saratoga County, according to the state Education Department.
The offices of Cuomo; Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx; and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R-Suffolk County, all issued statements Wednesday promising to tackle the funding issue for remaining districts next year.
"This will further level the playing field and we look forward to addressing it in the next budget," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement.
The details, however, have not yet been agreed to and will be subject to the ups and downs of state budget negotiations, which span three months and are generally conducted behind closed doors.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, D-New City, Rockland County, said a bill he sponsors to provide additional funding to the remaining districts will be the "starting point" for negotiations.
Zebrowski's bill would provide the schools five years of state transition aid to make the switch from half-day kindergarten, rather than the current one year. He and Assemblyman James Skoufis, an Orange County Democrat, represent the North Rockland district and had pushed for the pledge this week from Cuomo and legislative leaders.
"The Assembly is well on record as to what we believe will get this done, and that's a multi-year commitment to get these districts up and running," he said.
Julie Marlette, director of government relations for the state School Boards Association, said Zebrowski's proposal is attractive to school boards because it offers sustained support over a multi-year period.
She said she's "hopeful" Cuomo and the Legislature ultimately agree to something similar.
"I will certainly continue to advocate on behalf of Assemblyman Zebrowski's proposal, which I think is a good way to approach this," Marlette said. "Obviously, we're open to looking at alternatives, but the framework is something we're very supportive of."
Brighton Superintendent Kevin McGowan said he would "welcome any support from the governor, Senate and Assembly."
“We’re hopeful that a bill will pass to provide additional funding for full-day kindergarten and also provide relief to all of our taxpayers," he said in a statement.
Rush-Henrietta, meanwhile, will receive one year of transition aid from the state to cover one-time costs associated with its upcoming switch to full-day, including books and materials.
The district hired 13 teachers as part of the transition, the cost of which is not covered by the state, according to
Andrew Whitmore, Rush-Henrietta's assistant superintendent for finance and operations.
It would be "ideal" if the state can provide ongoing support for the costs associated with the expansion, Whitmore said.
"Under the (property tax) cap, our revenue growth is limited," Whitmore said. "So basically, we've had to reduce costs in other places to fund this. If the district gets ongoing support, it would be of great assistance to enabling the transition."
Includes reporting by The Journal News staff writer Kimberly Redmond.