On Tuesday night, the Kirkwood Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of offering full-time, tuition-free kindergarten in spite of concerns voiced by some residents at the meeting.
Dr. Tom Williams, superintendent of schools, said starting in the 2012-2013 academic year both full-day, tuition-free kindergarten and half-day, paid kindergarten will be offered for parents.
“This is going to have major impact in the school district,” said Williams before the board moved to approve the matter. “I think it is going to be a very positive impact. It’s something that I think we’ve waited for for many years.”
Before the vote, however, some parents and residents addressed the board with questions and concerns about the program.
“Kids these days are faced with more tests, higher standards, greater expectations, and much unneeded and unwanted stress brought upon by society’s ever increasing demands,” said Sara King, a parent of children in the district. “In light of the trend for all kindergarten to be full day, I have to wonder what’s coming down the road for our 3 and 4-year-olds. How much more can our society expect of our young children?
One resident spoke in favor of the measure.
“I strongly support free-tuition, full-day kindergarten. It enables the full development of children,” said Drew Ehrhardt, a Kirkwood resident. “It’s worth the effort and expenditure.”
But most speakers questioned the funding of the program and whether or not it would really be beneficial for children in the district.
“The money has to come from somewhere, and I would suspect this is from cuts from other programs to fund the all-day kindergarten,” said Gretchen Logue, a parent in the district. “He (Dr. Williams) stated there will be a need for tax increases because of rising costs, inflation. So while the kindergarten funding may come from cuts in other programs, the other programs will eventually necessitate a tax increase to fund their existence...Bottom line is that the move to provide an unmandated program will cost more dollars from taxpayers in the future.”
In a public forum held on Nov. 9, Williams said implementing full-day kindergarten would cost the district $850,000 and would not require an increase in the district's tax rates.
The district averages a budget of $60 to $70 million annually.
(Read previous story: Residents Flock to Kindergarten Forum)
Williams said the district had been planning the implementation of full-day kindergarten for several years but there was no space for it. With last year’s passing of Prop 1, a $33.5 million bond-issue for construction of new buildings in the district, Williams said the schools will now have the space to house full-day kindergarten students.
“We decided and we knew we had to do this incrementally because we didn’t have the space to allow more kids to have the full-day option,” Williams said. “Prop 1 is allowing us the capacity to provide for more students to have a full-day program.
King, however, said she and other residents were not told that the district’s plan with Prop 1 was to eventually implement full-day, tuition-free kindergarten.
“I recently heard one school board member say the community showed overwhelming support of full day because they passed Prop 1 to build classrooms for full-day students,” King said. “I don’t remember that being the message. I didn’t vote for Prop 1 to build classrooms for full-day students. I voted to build classrooms for all students so they could attend at their home school.”
The start up cost of the full-day, tuition-free program will be $850,000, however, Williams said the board is not certain at the time how the program will be funded since they don’t know what enrollment will be like.
“Every year we look at our budget and we make corrections, and we try to adjust to try to make sure our revenues and expenses come fairly close,” Williams said. “We have done that the last couple of years and we will continue to do that. We are going to get some additional state aid, which will help, but we don’t know yet how many sections we are going to need so we don’t know the actual cost. But we will make adjustments once we get those final numbers... If it’s a priority we will figure out how to fund it.”
King said she left the meeting feeling like her and other parents’ concerns were not addressed by the board.
“With so many unanswered questions, I am left feeling as if this decision is rushed, backwards and very irresponsible,” King said.
Williams said the board does listen to parents, which is why the option of half-day kindergarten will still be offered.
“We are not eliminating the half-day program... We want to offer the half-day program for as long as it is feasible,” Williams said. “ It’s a parent choice, I believe. We want parents to have the choice of a full-day program or a half-day program. In reality, it becomes a supply and demand issue as well. We have to look at how many students want each option and then we will have to staff accordingly.”
Williams said he appreciated all of the parents’ opinions.
“I understand there is a lot of emotion on either side of the issue,” Williams said. “We definitely want to honor and respect the wishes of our community.”