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Residents Flock to Kindergarten Forum

Residents, faculty and staff of the Kirkwood School District attended a community forum to discuss implementing tuition-free, full-day kindergarten.

More than 200 people packed the cafeteria Wednesday evening. They came with questions and comments on a single issue: the price of kindergarten in Kirkwood.

Dr. Tom Williams, superintendent of the Kirkwood School District, told the crowd that Proposition 1, which passed last fall, will provide the space for every child in the district to enroll in full-day Kindergarten.

"Before, we couldn't even talk about it because we didn't have the space to offer it to every student," community relations director Ginger Fletcher said. "But with Prop 1, which was a one-time expense, we now have the space, so now we want to figure out a process."

The school board generally sets rates for kindergarten in December, which is when they will make a final decision on full-day kindergarten tuitions, according to Williams.

"We aren't making decisions; we are hearing opinions," Williams said. "No option is totally off the table. Do we make it totally free? Do we find a way to drastically reduce the tuition based on need? These are the options we want to discuss with our citizens."

Williams said the initial cost of implementing full day kindergarten would be around $850,000, but it will not require an increase in the tax rate for the district. He also said future operating budgets would be smaller, because much of the calculated educational benefits of full-day kindergarten.

"We are going to get that money from our existing budget," Williams said. "We will get it by looking for energy efficiencies, by streamlining costs, by reducing expenditures in a responsible way."

Kirkwood averages a budget of between $60 and $70 million annually, which Williams said "makes $850,000 a much more reasonable number in context."

Williams led a panel of experts that consisted of kindergarten teachers at , and , as well as Dr. Lisa Greenstein, principal of Tillman.

Attendees were given an opportunity to make comments to the panel before they answered written questions submitted by the audience. The majority spoke in favor of implementing tuition-free, full-day kindergarten.

"We are talking about a relatively small portion of our budget to provide something that almost all other public schools have already begun to recognize as important," said Drew Ehrhardt, of Kirkwood. "You can't have a tuition based on need, because then you are asking some people to pay for a service others can receive for free that is a core part of curriculum. You need to make this available to everybody if you want to continue this district's tradition of academic success."

Local parents spoke overwhelmingly in favor of providing the service. However, not every member of the audience saw free full-day kindergarten as a priority.

Josephine Havlak, of Kirkwood, said the plan was "impractical and irresponsible," in these tough economic times.

"This is a district that had a $4 million deficit just a few years ago, and I think I speak for the growing frustration of citizens who feel their government should be tightening their belt rather than offering even more services for free," Havlak said. Havlak went on to say her eldest son is currently recieving his Ph.D from Cornell and did not attend full-day kindergarten.

"I just think that the cost/benefit isn't really there," Havlak said. "Most studies show that whatever gain you get from full-day kindergarten is often lost by third grade, when students begin to level out regardless of kindergarten."

After comments from residents, Williams and the panel spoke to the issue of educational equity and free full-day Kindergarten.

"Many studies exist, and all the benefits cannot be measured," Williams said. "But I believe this is an issue of equity. How do we provide the option of full-day kindergarten to those that want it? Nobody should have to go to half-day kindergarten simply because they can't afford full-day, because that's not equitable."

Kirkwood is one of only five districts in the St. Louis area that doesn't offer universal free full-day kindergarten. The others include Rockwood, Mehlville, Lindbergh and Webster Groves school districts.

Tuition for full-day kindergarten is $3,600 per student. Students eligible for the reduced lunch program, pay $1,600 and those eligible for free lunches pay around $900.

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