NEW MILFORD -- The issue of reinstating full-day kindergarten at New Milford schools dominated much of the 2011-12 education budget discussion this week.

Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote presented a $58.3 million budget to the Board of Education on Wednesday. That is a 2.31 percent increase over the present year and 1 percent less than the 2010-11 budget Paddyfote proposed in January 2010.

Things noted as driving the budget higher include $734,576 for capital improvements in facilities and technology and $299,962 to add 3.94 teaching positions, including a business teacher at the high school and two part-time music instructors.

The district had a two-year pilot full-day kindergarten program at John Pettibone School that was discontinued after the 2008-09 school year.

One of the music instructors would resume the fourth-grade band program that was cut for 2010-11, and the other would work at Schaghticoke Middle School.

Much of the budget discussion by Paddyfote and her three elementary school principals involved full-day kindergarten and what it would mean to student performance in later grades.

"I think we're out of touch and have unreasonable expectations of our (kindergarten) teachers to ask them to instill so much in children in 2½-hour sessions," Paddyfote said, noting that 43 percent of current New Milford kindergarten students had no preschool experience.

She proposes using most of a $698,000 federal education grant to hire nine kindergarten teachers to implement a full-day program in the fall.

The grant would cover the nine teachers' salaries for 2011-12 and 2012-13, she said.

Paddyfote also is requesting $75,000 to purchase furniture and instruction materials for the kindergarten classes.

She said $127,000 in transportation costs will be saved by not having to bus two different groups of kindergartners each day. That money can be utilized in future budgets to help pay the nine teachers' salaries, she said.

"I'm very excited about the possible passage of full-day kindergarten," said Sandra Nadeau, principal at Hill & Plain Elementary School. "By first grade, children are expected to read at a Level 4 ability. Many children come in (to kindergarten) not knowing their colors or their letters."

Northville Elementary School Principal Susan Murray agreed.

"The impact of full-day kindergarten will be phenomenal on (state-mandated) third-grade testing," she said. "The children will have a stable basis in their reading skills."

Murray said children can "seem fine" in their reading skills in second grade, but when they're in third grade "and start implementing compound words, they often display problems."

Schoool board member Lynette Rigdon questioned implementing the full-day program in the present "fragile economic picture."

"If we have a future budget with cuts required like the present year's, we may have to discontinue it in coming years," she said.

Board member Dave Lawson championed the idea, noting the Connecticut Business and Industry Association's 2011 agenda recommends "increased access to pre-K and full-day kindergarten" to solve the "achievement gap" Connecticut graduates now face when entering the national and international work force.

Contact Susan Tuz at stuz@newstimes.com or 860-355-7322