Divided board goes for new All Day K

by Jim Boyle

The Elk River Area School Board decided on a 5-2 vote Monday, Dec. 17 to add a free all-day, everyday kindergarten program, despite the District 728 administration’s recommendations to go with either a less costly option or hold off entirely.

The price tag is $1.37 million in the first year for a condensed 5.5-hour version of the program, down from a $2.2 million proposal for a full program that was considered part of a $6 million Nov. 6 operating levy that voters defeated.

It’s up from the $927,494 that would be needed to fund a Dec. 5 proposal to add an at-risk component that would be paired with the district’s fee-for-service program that is now offered. This would have reached two-thirds of the kindergarten population.

The approved program will provide 5.5 hours of free everyday instruction for all new kindergartners in the Elk River Area School District. The curriculum will focus on core academics with no specialist programming. Bus transportation will be provided.

Directors Janelle Henry, Jane Bunting, Holly Thompson and Shane Steinbrecher voted for the motion made by Sue Farber. Chair Jolene Jorgensen and Director Tony Walters did not support the motion.

Bunting argued the amount for the 5.5-hour model is only $443,000 off the administration’s proposal and something that will build off the momentum of the district’s strategic planning effort that put All Day K at the top of the district’s priorities.

“The administration’s dream is to have free all-day, everyday kindergarten,” Bezek stated at the Dec. 17 work session attended by the full board and board member-elect Dan Hunt.

But he also stated several times nothing says the board has to move on the matter now.

“The plan is seven months old, and it’s a seven-year plan,” he said. “I’m a risk taker and I like to push, but things have to be done sequentially.”

Bezek said the dream of All Day K went to the voters, “and they said ‘no.’”

“We know we are facing at least a $3.6 million deficit and that is without implementing any new kindergarten initiatives; I believe we have to get our financial house in order before starting to add on,” Bezek stated.

Given the board entered the Dec. 17 meeting divided, Jorgensen unsuccessfully sought a compromise that would get all seven board members on the same page. Other than looking for pots of money that could help cover the cost of the new program, no compromises were reached.

It came down to the split vote, with the administration recommending against the plan but adding it would make work whatever board decision was made.

Henry, who is leaving the School Board next month, said she felt a yes vote was a win-win.

“It’s not a vote for adults, but for kids,” she said. “I think it’s a cost savings for the future, as kids won’t have to be remediated.”

Thompson, who was re-elected to her second four-year term in November, defended her vote by saying the School Board will have to make budget reductions one way or another.

“If the voters said no to all-day, everyday kindergarten, they also said no to technology and curriculum.”

Bunting said from a budgeting standpoint she feels the new program can be implemented.

“It seems like it isn’t that much money in the budget to figure this out.” Farber offered a reminder that the reductions the administration will have to make will put the district budget at roughly the same amount as in 2008–2009. “That was before the one-time federal stimulus money came in,” she said.

Steinbrecher said if the initiative was not approved and the School Board needed to go to the voters next year, he was not optimistic they would vote for a full all-day, everyday kindergarten program.

Jorgensen and Walters both said they are philosophically supportive of expanding the kindergarten program, but they do not feel with budget cuts coming now is the time to add a new program.

Walters said he loves the idea of an expanded kindergarten program, and “if we could make it work with the budget, I’d be with it in a heartbeat; the problem is the budget deficit.”

“This will have implications all over the district,” Jorgensen said, noting that $6.7 million will need to be cut over the next three years and voters said ‘no.’

“It’s too hard for me to say I want all-day, everyday kindergarten at the expense of other students,” Jorgensen said.

The majority of the board, however, see it as a priority worthy of placing it ahead other programs.

This ADK plan will allow all kindergarten students to attend school for free 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.

School board members have balked at the idea of an all-day, everyday kindergarten program that creates winners and losers and would be considered unfair by some.

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