Bexley full-day kindergarten plan earns low marks

Bexley Schools Superintendent Michael Johnson is proposing that families be charged a fee for enrolling their children in full-day kindergarten, except for those receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

But members of the committee advocating the addition of full-day kindergarten expressed concern at the Jan. 28 school board meeting that the cost could put this option out of reach of some residents.

"If it’s good for all kids, you should provide it for all kids," responded Marguerethe Jaede. "If I can’t afford it, it’s not a choice for me."

In a statement presented to the board, Jaede noted that the committee made it clear that it was not in favor of a "pay-to-attend system," and that community support for full-day kindergarten was based on the district funding the classes.

Johnson said he believes full-day kindergarten should be offered, but his worst fear is that it could end up having a negative impact on the budget.

The committee, supported by Maryland Avenue Elementary Principal Jon Hood, launched its study last May and presented findings in December that showed full-day kindergarten to be beneficial to children academically and socially.

The possibility of offering full-day kindergarten in Bexley has been discussed for several years. The district provides a half-day program. Seventy percent of the state’s school districts offer a full-day option. Kindergarten attendance is not mandatory in Ohio.

The superintendent and school board have pointed out that the addition would come with a price tag estimated at $250,000 a year.

To offset that expense, Johnson recommends that an annual fee of $2,135, or $237 a month for nine months, be charged.

Families with children qualifying for the federal reduced lunch program would be charged $315 annually, or $35 a month for nine months. Families qualifying for the free lunch program would not be charged.

Subsidizing these families would cost $20,405 a year.

A morning half-day kindergarten program would continue to be offered for parents who do not want their children in school all day.

Mike Simpson believes that children should spend as much time in the home as possible.

"At a certain age kids are better off with their parents, and at a certain age they are better off at school," Simpson said.

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Anne Hyland presented a preliminary schedule for the half-day and full-day programs, with additional sessions for math, reading, art, music and physical education for students enrolled in the full-day program.

The district is projecting that 123 students will be enrolled in its kindergarten program for the fall.

Board member Craig Halliday pointed out that only 10 percent of the city’s households would benefit from a full-day kindergarten program.

The board is faced with a March deadline for making a decision on the policy heard in first reading at the meeting. Kindergarten registration begins the first week in April.

Johnson had not expected to report to the board before March, but found time during the winter break to formulate his proposal.

Board Vice President Andy Sutter offered that raising taxes or reducing other programs are the only other options besides charging a fee.

"There is no free program. It’s going to cost somebody something," Sutter said.

When the district campaigned for passage of an income tax, it promised to stay off the ballot for five, and possibly six, years.

Paying for full-day kindergarten could force the board to reinig on that promise, members said.

"Is anybody in favor of sliding fees, or any fees?" board member Steve Grossman asked residents.

No hands were raised.

Grossman said if the cost would not put the district on the ballot for a levy ahead of schedule, he would recommend that it be offered without charge.

Treasurer Chris Essman said he would calculate that impact on the budget.

Parent Amy O’Neil argued that the board can’t wait until the financial picture lines up perfectly before making the move.

"That’s like waiting to have kids until you can afford to have kids," according to O’Neil, who said she and her husband moved to Bexley because of the schools. "It’s important to take a stand."

Monique Lampke urged the board not to lose the momentum that has built up in favor of full-day kindergarten. "We don’t want you to back down, and we don’t want you to take the easy way out."

Contacted after the meeting, Hood said he stands by the committee’s findings that full-day kindergarten benefits kids, and that the district should provide the funding.

He also recognizes the financial challenge the proposal presents to the board. "It’s a very difficult scenario."

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