Hudson pushes ahead with kindergarten suit

HUDSON – Instead of meeting its Dec. 1 deadline by submitting a plan to implement kindergarten by fall, the Hudson School District sent a letter to the state Department of Education reminding it the district is suing instead.

Meanwhile, a group of Hudson parents told the board Monday that it’s ready to join forces with the state if the board doesn’t withdraw the lawsuit and instead focus on establishing a kindergarten program.

The letter, written by Hudson School Board Chairman David Alukonis, also informed Education Commissioner Lyonel Tracy that if the lawsuit fails, the district intends to petition for an extension to provide kindergarten in 2010 rather than 2009.

Superintendent Randy Bell told the board at its meeting Monday evening that the state Supreme Court denied the request for declaratory judgment in the case and referred it to superior court. The district, Bell said, has submitted a motion to reconsider and is awaiting judgment.

The suit alleges that a 2007 law requiring school districts to offer kindergarten by September 2009 violates the state constitution because it is an unfunded mandate.

The suit asks the court to bar the DOE from requiring Hudson to offer kindergarten or, pending a final hearing, to temporarily bar it from doing so.

On Monday, Donna Ohanian, a Hudson resident and co-founder of the New Hampshire Public Kindergarten Coalition, asked the board to withdraw its lawsuit and instead focus on providing kindergarten.

“I think the money’s better spent implementing public kindergarten,” she said. “I think the wise choice is to implement the program that parents want for the fall of (2009).”

Creating a kindergarten program shouldn’t be a problem for the district, Ohanian said, because the town is wealthier than some New Hampshire towns that have done so. There should be enough room for the program, she said, since school enrollments are declining.

Now, parents are forced to send their kids to private kindergarten programs that cost $3,000-$8,000, she said.

Ohanian, whose youngest of three children is a freshman at Alvirne High School, offered to work with the board to raise money and help find space for kindergarten classrooms.

If the board doesn’t withdraw its suit, she said, the coalition is prepared to instead offer its help to the state.

The group is also preparing two warrant articles for Town Meeting that could tie the board’s hands.

One of the articles would reduce to zero the portion of the board’s legal account for the kindergarten suit. The other would tell it to hire the teachers and find the classrooms for a full-day kindergarten program in time for the 2009-10 school year, Ohanian said.

“It’s just one of those things that needs to be finished,” she said. “For me, it’s just something that needs to be done.”

The board didn’t respond to Ohanian’s comments, which she made during the public input portion of the meeting.

Last year, the state Legislature included public kindergarten as a requirement for all schools in the definition of adequate education. It gave communities without kindergarten until September 2008 to start a program.

This summer, Gov. John Lynch signed a bill that extended that deadline to September 2009.

The district’s refusal to provide kindergarten in the face of the new law amounts to breaking the law, according to Hudson resident Cathlin Cote, and violates her 4-year-old son’s rights.

“Hudson is basically breaking the law,” said Cote, who is not related to the writer of this story. “I believe it’s a violation of (my son’s) legal right to an adequate education.”

Hudson is one of 12 New Hampshire school districts that don’t offer public kindergarten. The others are Litchfield, Lyndeborough, Mascenic, Mason, Milford, Pelham, Auburn, Chester, Derry, Salem and Windham. Some of those districts are working on plans to implement kindergarten by fall. Others have asked for extensions.

The state has given local districts three options to provide kindergarten, including 75 percent building aid for new classroom space. The districts can also hire private kindergarten providers for three years or get state aid to rent portable classrooms for four years.