All-day kindergarten
Future of district program is uncertain
ShareThisWednesday, January 19, 2011 01:29 PM
By CANDY BROOKS

ThisWeek Community Newspapers
Worthington is one of only a few central Ohio school districts that offer all-day kindergarten. But unless Ohio legislators act quickly, that program could be gone next year.

House Bill 1, part of former Gov. Ted Strickland's education reform package approved two years ago, mandates that all Ohio districts offer a full-day kindergarten program to all students beginning next school year.

It also requires that the program be free, which puts a strain on districts like Worthington that charge a fee.

Currently parents pay $220 a month for the full-day program, called K-plus. Without that tuition, the program would cost taxpayers approximately $1-million a year.

With further cuts in state funding looming, finding that much money for the kindergarten program would be difficult, Superintendent of Schools Melissa Conrath said.

Educators are counting on a bill being prepared in the Ohio House that would cancel the all-day kindergarten mandate, and would allow districts like Worthington to continue to charge tuition.

"This is an avenue we want to make sure we support," she said. "It would return control back to local school districts."

Timing is crucial. Parents begin registering children for kindergarten in March. Currently, they are being told to prepare both for a tuition-based, all-day program, and for the possibility that K-plus may not be offered next year.

While lobbying for the bill being sponsored by Rep. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, school officials are also readying their own back-up plan.

At its meeting next Monday, the school board will consider a motion to request from the Ohio Department of Education a waiver relieving the district of the all-day, tuition-free mandate.

Though the district still would not be permitted to charge a fee to parents, a waiver would allow it to offer the full-day program only to certain students.

For example, the district might choose to return to a lottery system, allowing enrollment to those whose names are randomly selected; it could offer a modified extended-day program to children with special needs; or it could cancel K-plus altogether.

At the Jan. 10 meeting, school board member David Bressman declared he would oppose any attempt to cancel the program.

Other programs should be considered for reductions, and the community asked for input before the board cuts K-plus, he said.

"I can foresee no circumstances in which I would support dismantling the K-plus program," he said.

The program began in 2002, with only a few classes spread across the district. It eventually grew to one class at each school, and now is offered at all elementary schools to any parent who chooses to pay for the program.

That is approximately 80 percent, Conrath said. The rest of the kindergartners attend traditional, half-day programs.

Designed to be self-supporting, that became impossible when HB 1 required that tuition return to its 2007-08 level. That meant lowering the fee from $240 a month.

If the district is permitted to continuing offering K-plus, the fee would probably increase at least to its former level, Conrath said.