Board decision nears on all day kindergarten

by Jim Boyle

A majority of the Elk River Area School Board remains committed to rolling out an all day everyday kindergarten program by next fall, even though it will increase the amount of budget cutting and deficit spending they do in the coming school year.

School Board Chair Jolene Jorgensen and School Board Member Tony Walters say it may be better to wait.

“I’m not ready to cut $2 million,” Jorgensen said. “There’s too many questions and too many implications.

“I may be on board if I more details, maybe even the full enchilada.”

Members of the majority are considering three models, including a less costly model than the full blown all day every day program.

Jana Hennen-Burr, the assistant superintendent in charge of educational services, said administrators heard the board loud and clear that it wanted an all day every day kindergarten program for all kids. Hennen-Burr said the new option does it for less money than full All Day K program.

This one would allow all kindergarten students to attend school for 5.5 hours every day. The loss of an hour from the current all day every other day program would mean students would lose out on gym, art and music taught by trained specialists.

The price tag is $1.37 million, down from nearly $2 million for the full program. It’s up from the $927,494 that would be needed to fund as an at-risk component that would be pared with fee for service program that is now offered. Two-thirds of the kindergarten population would attend under this model. That approach, which was recommended by the administration, has been shot down by the board.

School Board Members have balked at the idea of an all day every day kindergarten program that creates winners and losers and would be considered unfair by some.

“Public education is about fairness,” said Jane Bunting, noting that all students deserve the strong start they need.

The District 728 has cautioned the Elk River Area School Board from implementing the program when budget cuts are already in order.

To balance the budget for the coming school year, $3.6 million in cuts would be needed. That does not include new money for a kindergarten program or any other new efforts.

For every $1 million cut, it’s the equivalent of 20 teachers.

Class sizes are better than they were before the Elk River Area School District received federal stimulus dollars. That revenue stream has dried up.

Superintendent Mark Bezek said there’s nothing wrong with waiting a year. “You’re not going against the strategic plan if you do,” he said.

Randy Anderson, the school district’s executive director of business services, rolled out a slide presentation showing how the Elk River Area District stacks up with other districts. He looked at district’s its size and ones that District 728 lines up with demographically. “In most cases District 728 is at or near the bottom,” he said.

Anderson said it’s true whether you look at how much administration the district has, how much non-licensed staff it has, or how many teachers it has. The age-old problem is, he said, is other district’s get more money on a per student basis.

“So if you’re looking for fat…,” he said. “We’re lean and mean.”

Board members, however, don’t want to stop momentum created by the strategic planning process. They see “All Day K” at the top of their priority list.”

“I’m putting a stake in the ground,” Bunting said. “I don’t want to stop the momentum.”

Bunting said at a cost of $1.37 million, the district is only looking at an additional $500,000 if it considers that literacy aid it is receiving for success on state tests. That money, however, is already a part of the budget projections that Anderson has prepared.

Shane Steinbrecher said  he could live with the $1.37 million option, and that he wants to see it go this year.

“But it’s hard not seeing what any of the budget cuts would be,” he said.

Walters liked the idea of holding off, so the board has less cuts and less deficit spending to deal with this year. He expressed an openness to coming back with a levy for just the All Day K.

Sue Farber said she sees the district on the precipice of big changes.

“We can make this work with minimal impact to the program,” she said. “I’m being an optimist.”

Holly Thompson, another strong advocate, said she has had the pleasure of working in the schools and seeing the district’s all day every day program and targeted services at work.

“I have watched the kids struggle as first graders,” she said. “It breaks your heart.”

But she also said she needs to know more about the ramifications of the decision to make a decision.

The Elk River Area School Board will resume discussion of all day every day kindergarten at its 6 p.m. work session on Monday, Dec. 17 at the District 728 Offices.