The Bexley school board Feb. 25 voted 3-2 against eliminating fees from a proposed policy for a full-day kindergarten program, setting the stage for a possible final vote in March.
"I’m 100 percent against any kind of fee structure," board member Steve Grossman stated after offering an amendment to strip the requirements for payments for some families. "You can’t say ‘It’s in the best interest of the children, give us some money.’ As a public school district, we don’t have any business charging for it."
The board will need to vote in March to be able to offer full-day kindergarten starting in September.
Superintendent Michael Johnson has contended that funding full-day kindergarten would be a financial burden on the district, and he has suggested a sliding fee scale for lower-income households to make it affordable for all parents.
Johnson’s latest proposal would have families at or above 300 percent of poverty paying $237 a month for full-day kindergarten, with a range of fees between $68 and $200 per month for other income levels. The superintendent had also recommended that families qualifying for the free lunch program not be charged for kindergarten.
The compromise did not sway Grossman.
"If it’s for five families, I’m against it," he said.
Grossman’s remarks echoed the views of Joan Fishel, who voted in favor of his amendment.
Offering a full-day program, that could help identify and correct learning disabilities earlier, shouldn’t be all about dollars and cents, Fishel maintained.
"How do I look a parent in the eye and say it wasn’t cost-effective?" Fishel asked.
Diane Peterson, Andy Sutter and Craig Halliday cast no votes on the amendment.
Peterson pointed out her opposition to the district paying for full-day kindergarten when she ran for the board in 2001, preferring to put the resources into keeping class sizes small.
"I want to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money, and I don’t want to cut any programs," Peterson said.
Johnson estimated that the cost of implementing full-day kindergarten, including hiring four teachers, would be between $320,000 and $420,000 a year.
Sutter said he was leaning in favor of a program with a sliding fee scale.
About 80 residents attended the meeting, most of them wearing blue ribbons in support of the conclusions of a study that recommended full-day kindergarten be offered free of charge.
"We view our schools as our great equalizer," said Marlee Snowden, who headed the study that issued its report last year. "Despite our backgrounds, we should all have the same opportunity."
Parent Natalie Baker called the policy "discriminatory" and said that pay-to-play should apply to sports, not education.
Maryland Avenue Elementary Principal Jon Hood, who has helped oversee the study, said that there is "overwhelming research" that all-day kindergarten benefits all children by providing more time for instruction, and for intervention in the case of learning difficulties.
Snowden said that 474 signatures had been collected for a petition in support of a free full-day kindergarten.
Halliday disputed those numbers, noting that the names included parents from the same household, as well as people from out-of-state and out of the country, along with anonymous petitioners.
The final numbers boiled down to fewer than 5 percent of the registered voters in Bexley, according to Halliday.
Montrose Elementary first-grade teacher Molly McCarrick came out against full-day kindergarten, calling it "developmentally inappropriate" for children of that age.
McCarrick offered that, in her more than 25 years of teaching first-grade, she had never encountered a child she thought would have benefited from a full day of kindergarten.
Parent Mike Simpson said he believes that children at that age are better offer spending time with their parents. "Full-day should start in first-grade, not kindergarten."
Bob Burke, who co-chaired the committee that successfully passed an income tax issue in 2004, said that, if the district is not going to charge for kindergarten, it will have to either raise additional taxes or cut other programs.
Officials had promised that, with the passage of the income tax, the school district would stay off the ballot for at least six years.
With current expenses and revenue, the superintendent calculated that the district will have only a $1 million cash balance in 2012, a figure he said is "dangerously low."
He expects that discussion about an operating levy will begin in 2009, with the possibility of a ballot issue in 2010.
"There’s no such thing as a free program. Someone’s going to have to pay for it," Sutter said.