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N.H. Kindergarten-Aid Promise May Be Hard To Keep

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New Hampshire school districts were promised $5 million in kindergarten aid this year.

But local school officials aren't holding their breath, and state Commissioner of Education Elizabeth M. Twomey still has her doubts.

"It's going to be tricky," she said last week.

In June, Gov. Stephen Merrill signed a new law granting districts $500 per kindergarten-age child--about a third of the actual per-pupil cost of providing half-day kindergarten.

But the legislation says that the help from the state will come from "any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated."

The state's fiscal 1997 budget shortfall now hovers somewhere between $10 million and $60 million, and only months after New Hampshire took the first steps toward helping underwrite kindergarten, state officials still can't say how they're going to pay for the program.

Jeff Pattison, a state budget analyst, said that the state intends to provide the kindergarten funding.

But the shortfall means many budget decisions are still to be made. "As with most states, you have a way of either cutting programs to come up with the money or redesignating current monies," he said.

Making the situation more shaky is the fact that the $5 million is a one-time expenditure. The law requires the legislature to reappropriate kindergarten aid each year.

Future Years in Doubt

"If they find it this year, then there is a good chance that it will be continued," Ms. Twomey said. But if the program is allowed to lapse until next year, she said, it might never be funded. The state has until the end of the June to send out the money.

Ms. Twomey's department, which is supposed to write the regulations for the program, is also waiting on a ruling from Attorney General Jeffrey Howard on a piece of the legislation that allows districts without kindergartens to contract with private programs for services.

The authors of the bill say they didn't intend for the program to become a voucher system. But others, including state school board Chairman Ovide M. Lamontagne, who is also a Republican candidate for governor, has said that he would like the $500 to go to directly to parents.

Ms. Twomey said she would like to have the question cleared up by December.

Kindergarten Not Required

New Hampshire doesn't require districts to offer kindergarten, but of the 154 districts in the state with 1st grade, 103 are providing public kindergarten programs this year. Most are half-day programs, financed with local tax dollars.

Pauline Armstrong, the business administrator for the Bedford school district outside Manchester, is expecting about $89,000 in kindergarten aid.

"It would be nice to have," Ms. Armstrong said. "But it's not going to mean the difference between whether we're going to offer kindergarten or not."

In order to maintain local control, almost all education funding in New Hampshire is handled at the local level. As a result, school officials are not in the habit of relying on the state for much in the way of school funding, Mr. Pattison said.

But while local control has its merits, Commissioner Twomey said public kindergarten for all students "needs to be offered for the good of the community."

"It is both educationally effective and cost-effective in the long run," she said.

Statewide, about half of all New Hampshire 5-year-olds attend public kindergarten.

Another 35 percent attend private programs, leaving 15 percent with no kindergarten experience.

Since the new law was passed, districts that don't offer kindergarten have shown more interest in starting a program, said Helen Schotanus, a state curriculum supervisor for primary education.

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