The Bexley school board March 17 voted unanimously against establishing a full-day kindergarten program that would have charged most parents a fee, but held out the possibility that the offering could be part of a levy campaign in two years.
"We maintain a public school district. We can’t draw a distinction and ask parents to pay for one academic program and not another," explained Board Vice President Andy Sutter, who said he had been convinced by the research presented by a committee of parents and teachers that full-day kindergarten would benefit all students.
He added that he couldn’t ignore the financial situation facing the district by putting another expense into the budget.
Superintendent Michael Johnson had estimated that introducing full-day kindergarten could cost as much as $420,000 a year.
Johnson had proposed in January that parents be charged $237 a month for the option of having their children in full-day kindergarten classes. Families receiving reduced-price lunches, under federal poverty guidelines, would have been charged $35 a month, and those receiving free lunches would not have had to pay.
A sliding scale based on income levels was also discussed, but board members saw difficulties in administering it.
Bexley now offers only a half-day kindergarten program. The research committee, with the support of Maryland Avenue Elementary School Principal Jon Hood, determined that the extra time would allow teachers to better deliver the curriculum and identify learning difficulties.
Parent Marlee Snowden, who headed the committee, said she was disappointed that Bexley children will not be offered a program that the research supports, and that has the backing of the majority of board members, administrators, parents and kindergarten teachers.
"I understand that they have to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, but they also need to be good stewards of our children’s education," said Snowden, who has one child who will attend kindergarten in the fall.
Snowden said she can enroll her child in the K-Plus program through the YMCA, as she did with her two other children, but she is concerned for families who cannot afford that option.
Hood said he continues to stand by the committee’s recommendation that full-day kindergarten is a beneficial program and that the district should pay for it.
He pointed out that it’s "inevitable" that Ohio will mandate full-day kindergarten, as do a majority of other states.
Board members Steve Grossman and Joan Fishel came out last month against setting fees for full-day kindergarten.
"I am in complete support of full-day kindergarten, but I am completely against charging for it," Grossman reiterated.
Board member Craig Fishel said he has never been opposed to full-day kindergarten, but was against having the district pick up the full cost.
Board President Diane Peterson, who did not support full-day kindergarten, said that she had been in favor of setting fees, but did not want to go ahead with a policy that did not have the support of the community.
With an eye on an anticipated levy campaign in 2010, Sutter suggested that a resolution be adopted directing the superintendent and treasurer to calculate the cost of full-day kindergarten and to incorporate the figure into the next tax issue.
Halliday responded that he didn’t want the next levy to become a referendum on full-day kindergarten, and would prefer to see the levy passed before the issue is revisited.
Fishel said that the resolution could make full-day kindergarten part of a future levy, and not necessarily the next levy.
Fearing that the issue could lose momentum, Sutter said he would vote for a more ambiguous statement, "but I won’t introduce it."
Johnson urged that the kindergarten committee members be involved in the planning for the upcoming levy.
Snowden was unsure if her committee, which has been working for a year on the proposal, would be able to maintain its drive over the next two years.
Board members acknowledged that most of them could be gone by the time the issue comes up again. Peterson stated that she does not plan to run for a third term.
But they are confident that full-day kindergarten will be offered.
"I’m optimistic that we will have it," Grossman said. "But that remains to be seen."
In other business, the board announced that it will hold a meeting April 10 at 7 p.m. with city officials to discuss possible development on the former Woodland Meadows property for expansion of school facilities, including a sports complex and community park.
The property, north of Bexley, was once the site of a subsidized housing project and has been taken over by Columbus, which bulldozed the apartment buildings last year and is offering it for sale.
In October, Paul Kolada, a member of the Bexley Athletic Boosters, and other residents approached the school board with the proposal for obtaining part of the property.
Discussions with school and city officials have continued, leading to the upcoming meeting to allow comments from the public.