HAVERHILL — School officials say they expect a 10% boost in enrollment for full-day kindergarten classes, if the city goes ahead with a proposal to provide them free beginning this fall.

The additional children who are expected to take advantage of the program are those whose families may not be able to afford to pay for full-day tuition and who are at risk of entering first grade not as well prepared as their all-day counterparts.

Currently, Haverhill students pay tuition to attend full-day kindergarten, at a cost of about $2,500 per student per year, though there is a sliding scale payment for households that demonstrate a financial burden. Under the new plan, kindergarten would come free of charge, like every other grade across the district, saving all kindergarten parents the cost of kindergarten tuition.

According to Superintendent Margaret Marotta, 86% of Massachusetts communities don’t charge for full-day kindergarten — 293 of 341.

Offering free kindergarten classes would cost the city $140,000, according to Marotta.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 589 children are enrolled in kindergarten classes in Haverhill for this school year. Marotta said a very small amount, about a dozen children, attend the half-day program.

Mayor James Fiorentini and Marotta recently announced plans to implement free full-day kindergarten across the city and offer free lunch and breakfast to all students beginning next school year. 

Although the federal government will cover the cost of the free breakfast and lunch program, according to Marotta, free, all-day kindergarten would come out of the school budget. 

Marotta plans to propose a budget of about $88.8 million, an increase of 5.7 percent — or $4.8 million — over the current fiscal year 2019 operating budget.

A PowerPoint overview of the budget is now available on the school department's website, www.haverhill-ps.org, under "FY2020 Superintendent's Recommended Budget."

Although facets of Marotta's proposed budget have been discussed during recent budget hearings, the entire budget must be formally presented to the School Committee for review and discussion and then voted on, school officials said. The committee has the power to amend the budget.

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the budget, which would then go before the City Council for final approval as part of the total city budget for the next fiscal year. 

Classroom overcrowding is an issue at the middle school level, but Marotta said that is not the case for the district's kindergarten program.

"Kindergarten is not currently an area with overcrowding — the class sizes here are reasonable to low in some places," she said.

She anticipates and has budgeted for an enrollment increase of 50 children for the all-day kindergarten program, basing that number on enrollment trends over the past five years.

"This is about a 10% increase," she said. "We have included the additional 50 students in our enrollment projections to control for class size and we have enough staff with the proposed budget increases."

In Haverhill, Marotta said she noticed that the number of kindergartners across the district was lower than the number of first- and second-grade students, indicating that parents were not sending their children to kindergarten because of the cost.

"We discovered there were families that weren't sending their kids to kindergarten because they couldn't afford it and that's really concerning," Marotta said last week in announcing her proposal. "Kindergarten is foundational. It's where kids are introduced to literacy as well as the structures of the classroom."

The extra funding Marotta is seeking for the School Department is in line with last year's funding increase. Between fiscal years 2018 and 2019, the mayor and City Council authorized a 6.2 percent increase, which came out to about $5.8 million.

Of the $4.8 million proposed increase for fiscal year 2020, $2.2 million would be paid for by the city and $2.6 million would come from the state, according to a press release from the mayor's office. Marotta said about 3 percent would cover level increases for personnel, and the rest would cover the costs of eliminating kindergarten tuition and the expiration of a $500,000 grant at the Tilton School.

Other highlights of the superintendent's budget include up to seven new bilingual "community workers," a grant manager, additional resources for the Parent Resource Center, funding for new mental health school-based supports, and new funding to reduce classroom sizes.