On kindergarten issue, next step for Hudson isn't entirely clear

HUDSON – Wednesday was The Day After, a time for deep breaths, for dusting off the proverbial drawing board, for putting heads together to answer the simple, but elusive query: “Where do we go from here?”

For instance, the likelihood that 5-year-olds in Hudson will find themselves sitting in public kindergarten this fall took a serious blow at Tuesday’s polls. The measure, calling for $1.23 million to implement half-day kindergarten in September, fell hard by a 2-1 margin.

That leaves Hudson with the dubious distinction of being perhaps the last town in the nation with no formal plans to offer public kindergarten to its students.

Aside from the obvious economic – and emotional – issues over kindergarten in this town of roughly 25,000, the district’s “unfunded mandate” lawsuit against the state Department of Education returns from the wings to once again take center stage.

And as timing would have it, a preliminary hearing on the suit is coming up in less than a week.

Discussion at the hearing, which is slated for 9 a.m. Wednesday, March 18, at Hillsborough County Superior Court in Nashua, will likely center on arguments surrounding the state’s objection to the lawsuit, according to Deputy Attorney General Anne Edwards. The motion is expected to be filed today, Edwards added.

The state also plans to file a motion to dismiss the suit, Edwards said, but that one may not be heard on Wednesday.

While Superintendent Randy Bell was relieved that the proposed $41.5 school operating budget was OK’d by voters (1,635 to 1,326), he remained philosophical on the string of “no” votes that shot down all proposed raises for district employees – union or not.

“Looks like we’ll be going back to the bargaining table,” he said after the vote was announced. “You really can’t be surprised though, given what’s happening with the economy.”

Voters also created, perhaps unknowingly, a rather interesting situation Tuesday by dismissing school board chair Dave Alukonis – a driving force behind the town’s kindergarten suit – and replacing him with political newcomer Laura Bisson, a staunch kindergarten advocate who vehemently opposes the suit.

Bisson said it’s too early to predict if, or how, her presence on the board will impact its handling of the suit. But one thing is clear – the issue is atop her to-do list.

“I ran for the children,” she said. “I have no personal agenda, I just want to do what’s right for the kids and the schools.” That, Bisson says, would be getting public kindergarten up and running as soon as possible and dissolving the lawsuit.

The district, in its suit, maintains that by forcing towns to implement kindergarten without providing adequate funds, the state could be in violation of Article 28-A of the state Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from mandating new programs or modifying existing programs without fully funding them. To date, all districts except Hudson have complied with the state’s kindergarten order.

The crux of the disagreement is over the question of “how much funding is adequate funding?”

Longtime kindergarten proponent Donna Ohanian has maintained that Hudson already has plenty of room in existing schools for the roughly 270 children who would be eligible for kindergarten this fall. But school officials, including Bell and Alukonis, have disagreed, saying their proposal of $1.23 million is the amount of money needed to “do kindergarten the right way in Hudson.”

Edwards disputes Hudson officials’ assessment. “It’s my understanding that Hudson has more than enough space (for kindergarten) without building anything,” she said. “They say we’re not offering them enough money, we say we are. That’s a debate that needs to go to trial, which we’re prepared to do,” Edwards added.

Meanwhile, Ohanian said she’s considerably less optimistic of seeing public kindergarten in Hudson anytime soon.

“I don’t see anything happening for this fall, unless a court order comes down pretty soon,” she said on Thursday. “Maybe it’s just a matter of letting the suit run its course, because at some point it will be implemented, if not in ’09, then maybe in ’10 or ’11.”

Ohanian said the vote hasn’t deterred her and her fellow kindergarten advocates from their mission.

“Now I’m putting my efforts toward finding something, some place, for kids who have no place to go,” she said. While some 5-year-olds in town – the exact percentage depends upon the source – will return to private kindergartens this fall, Ohanian says there are plenty who will, like others before them, have to forego kindergarten, largely for financial reasons.

“I bet it’s a lot more than 5 percent who won’t be able to go,” she said, referring to Alukonis’ earlier estimate that roughly 95 percent of Hudson kids already attend some form of kindergarten.

“Those are the kids we need to help find a place to go,” she added.