Monticello School Board debates all-day kindergarten rates

A decade ago, the then-cash strapped Monticello school district approved an all-day kindergarten option on the condition that it must be a self-sufficient program, with participating families paying for all expenses related to their child’s additional time in school.
Fast-forward to the present, and you will find debates at all levels of government about whether all-day kindergarten should be publicly funded, as well as a growing number of schools that have taken that step on their own. The changing attitudes and public perceptions of all-day kindergarten turned the normally mundane task of setting all-day kindergarten rates into a contentious debate among Monticello school board members on Monday evening.
The district’s budget committee, in keeping with the philosophy that the all-day kindergarten program should be self-supporting, recommended raising the rates by $90 for the 2013-14 school year. Last year’s rates remained unchanged from the year before, and the committee’s calculations showed that the district needed to bump fees to cover costs.
Superintendent Jim Johnson said some other school districts in the area have been dropping or lowering their fees for their all-day program so Monticello’s fees are now higher than the local average. However, he said the rates are competitive with the costs parents would likely otherwise pay to put their child in daycare.
Boardmember Scott Hill was first to speak out against the proposed fee hike, saying he felt strongly that the program fee should be going down rather than up. He argued that the district subsidizes a number of different opportunities for students, from non-required course offerings to sports and activities, and feels the all-day kindergarten program is worthy of the same funding philosophy.“We had $3 million in the bank at last audit, and another $800,000 added to that this year if we don’t spend it,” Hill said.
“We’re taking a segment of our school population and eliminating them from participating in [all-day kindergarten], and I don’t think that’s what we are as a public school, and especially this public school with our record on what we try to do for kids.”
While Hill recognized that subsidizing some of the program costs would impact the district’s budget, he said he feels the district is now in a position to do this, unlike their situation 10 years ago. Lindberg agreed with Hill, saying he makes a point to ask other school districts about their all-day kindergarten programs, and said about half already fully fund all-day kindergarten for all students.
Hill and other board members extolled the virtues of all-day kindergarten compared to half-day, saying that teachers can pick out which children attended the all-day program. Board member Jill Bartlett was the lone board member to speak out in defense of the half-day program, saying all-day kindergarten is not the right fit for everybody and that the half-day program also turns out successful, high-achieving students.
“I want to be careful not to disparage our half-day kindergarten kids so much,” Bartlett said. “I have three kids who went through half-day kindergarten and have all been in accelerated classes and are having great success. While I agree with what you’re saying, I think we’re not … giving kids a disadvantage by only having them in half day.”
Boardmember Liz Leitch-Sell said she agreed with Hill but that it would be too rushed to change their philosophy for next year, as kindergarten registration begins March 4 and the elementary principals requested to know the costs by then so they could let families know. Instead, Leitch-Sell said now is the time to have discussions about subsidizing all-day programming, studying the issue and looking at data before deciding if it’s worth the investment. Leitch-Sell threw her support instead behind increasing the amount of scholarship money set aside for all-day kindergarten while they research the possibility of broader changes in the following years.
After a lengthy discussion, Hill made a motion to decrease all-day kindergarten rates from the current $2,565 to $1,800, a decrease of $85 per month.
He said this would cost the school district approximately $200,000 per year, according to his calculations. The motion failed 2-4, with Hill and Lindberg voting in favor. Hill said he made his motion knowing it would not pass, but said he wanted to get his ideas on the table.
“I just don’t want public education in Monticello influenced by parents’ pocketbooks,” he said. “It’s too important to those kids. The start that these kids get is so important … and we have the funds today to impact that.”
Immediately after the first motion failed, Lindberg proposed another motion to maintain the current rates and look into changing the philosophy of all-day kindergarten prices, and a buzz of opinions began swirling back and forth among members until board chair Rob Smith cut into the fray to make a subsidiary motion to table the item and return it to the budget committee.
This action forced a vote on his motion before Lindberg’s, and the board accepted Smith’s motion 4-2 before defeating Lindberg’s initial motion 4-1 with Jeff Hegle abstaining.
The issue of all-day kindergarten prices will now be sent back to the district’s budget committee, which Smith said would allow for about three weeks of considering options and number crunching before the March 4 board meeting, when the issue will be readdressed.
Little Mountain Principal Bob Dockendorf said they would deal with the ambiguity as best as they could during kindergarten registration and Johnson said they would get final information out to families as soon as a decision is made.
More information about the district’s kindergarten program, the governor’s kindergarten proposals and information on how other local school districts are handling their kindergarten programs will be featured in next week’s Monticello Times.
In other business, the board:
•Heard from superintendent Jim Johnson about the governor’s budget proposals, which includes an additional 350 million to public schools. This would mean a significant $2.05 million coming to the school district in the next biennium, an increase of $504 per pupil unit. The new funding would be given to address several issues, including putting more students in early childhood education programs, providing incentives for funding all-day kindergarten starting in fiscal year 2015, extending services for ELL students who need more time to master English and curbing cross subsidy in special education, which happens when school districts must use money from their general funds to pay for special education costs. Johnson stressed that this is a very long way off from actually happening and only represents the governor’s proposals, not the legislature’s proposals or bills.
For the time being, Johnson said they would continue to plan their budget under their former assumptions that they would not see any funding increases for next year.
•Heard from three representatives of a group of about 15 people who attended the meeting to ask the district to consider adding trapshooting to the list of Monticello’s school sanctioned sports. The group said 25-45 more schools are adding trapshooting to their offerings per year, and that it wouldn’t cost the district any additional money. They also told the board that their sport is statistically safer than participating in badminton. Johnson said the district would discuss the issue and get back to the trapshooting club.
•Heard from the middle school’s two sixth grade math teachers about recent changes to their programming.  A double accelerated level has been created for the next school year to allow some high-flying students to begin pre-algebra in sixth grade, which will set them up to take both levels of advanced placement mathematics as high school students if they so choose. They also discussed the new Saxon math curriculum, which is taught to the two-thirds of students who are not on an accelerated track.
The next board meeting will take place 5 p.m. March 4 in the middle school boardroom.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.