by Jim Boyle
Members of the Elk River Area School Board haven’t given up on what they considered the most attractive component to the failed Nov. 6 operating levy.
They have asked the District 728 administration to continue working on a full blown all day, everyday kindergarten option, and to gauge the impact such a move would impact the overall budget to help them decide.
Members realize the 2012–13 school budget will have to be cut. Even with passage of last month’s levy that would have been the case. But they are also committed to the district’s newly tooled strategic plan that calls for all day, everyday kindergarten, and they are willing to consider prioritizing it over other district expenditures.
The Elk River Area School Board was asked to consider three approaches at its Wednesday, Dec. 5 meeting, each with a different set of pros and cons and price tags.
“I’m all in on Option No. 1,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Jane Bunting during the debate about the three options for moving toward all day, everyday kindergarten. “I believe the strategic planning group wanted it.”
All day, everyday kindergarten in its truest form would cost close to $2 million. Administrators presented two less costly options that board members were leery about.
One looked at splitting the kindergarten school day in two and having all kids go every day but for only 4.5 hours instead of 6.5 hours. The focus would have been on math and language arts. Specialist time (music, gym and art) would be removed with this option. There would also be a feature in which there would be two classroom teachers overlapping instruction time for more intense student assistance.
The cost of this option is estimated at $1.4 million, including $300,000 for midday transportation.
A third option, which administrators recommended as a low-impact step in the right direction, called for a continuation of a fee-based program and freeing up about $737,000 to scholarships for at-risk students into the program.
At-risk students are defined as those in the free- and reduced-lunch program, some special education students and English Language Learners who are learning English as second language.
The whole program could be initiated for less than $1 million. The school district will be compensated for success on tests to the tune of $800,000 as a reward for its progress in the state’s Read Well by 3rd Grade Initiative.
One argument for this third option is it would target children most in need of help to be able to read by 3rd grade.
“This would help us close the achievement gap,” said Jana Hennen-Burr, the school district’s assistant superintendent in charge of educational services.
Those who pay this year pay about $2,700 a year. It’s possible the cost could be lowered to about $2,200 under this plan.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Superintendent Mark Bezek. “It gets us in the door and moves us toward the strategic plan.”
Board members expressed concern about the middle third of students whose parents would want this option, but would not qualify and could not afford it.
School board member Holly Thompson’s mind drifted back to a parent who approached the district about getting free or reduced-priced lunches.
“They couldn’t qualify, but they couldn’t afford them, either,” she recalled, noting the same scenario could play out for other families with this option.
Bezek said it’s not a perfect approach, but would allow the district to serve two-thirds of its kindergarten population, rather only one-third. “And its the neediest one-third that we would be serving,” Bezek said.
Board member Shane Steinbrecher said he couldn’t agree to either of the last two options. He and others pressed for administrators to look at the budget impact.
Board members have expressed an appetite for prioritization when developing the coming school year’s budget.
Randy Anderson, the Elk River Area School District director of business services, told board members he will have a better idea of the financial ramifications as information comes in from the state and other school districts.
Heidi Adamson, principal at Hassan Elementary School, said an important factor to consider is preventing children from leaving the district. Parker Elementary School Principal Mike Malmberg pointed out when you lose one child to an all-day, everyday kingergarten program, you often lose siblings, too.
Adamson and Malmberg and other elementary school principals in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting support all-day, everyday kindergarten took the board’s support as a good sign, but seemed to express a cautious optimism.