Zionsville might pass on full-day kindergarten funds

Administrators at Zionsville Community Schools are entertaining the idea of declining additional state funding for full-day kindergarten, even as nearly all other school districts accept it.

The new, one-year funding, approved by the Legislature in March, would give school districts $2,400 per student in full-day kindergarten, nearly double the current funding of $1,234 per student.

Robison Robison

But Zionsville’s superintendent, Scott Robison, informally recommended in March that the school system take a pass on the new funding because it still does not fully cover the costs required to expand its kindergarten program from half days to full days.

“We’d like to offer it,” Robison said, noting the “positive power” of full-day kindergarten for students.

But he recommended against it because Zionsville would have to add at least 13 teachers to offer full-day kindergarten, at a time a budget crunch forced the school to make a second round of 16 teacher layoffs on April 23.

Adding kindergarten teachers, and perhaps having to add classroom space, might require even further cuts in other areas.

The Zionsville school board has not acted on the kindergarten issue, but has instead delayed a decision until after a May 8 voter referendum on a $4.7 million annual property tax increase for the schools.

Full-day kindergarten has received significant focus in Indiana the past decade because an array of research shows full-day kindergarten boosts student achievement for years afterward.

In the past six years, enrollment in full-day kindergarten has surged more than sixfold, and this school year, 85 percent of the state’s 78,000 kindergartners attend a full-day program funded by the state.

School districts cannot formally accept the new funding until May 15. But according to Stephanie Sample, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education, Zionsville is the only school system so far that has communicated informally that it likely won’t take the money.

“It sure will look bad, refusing the money,” said Larry DeBoer, an agricultural economist and school finance expert at Purdue University. But, he added, Robison’s reasoning “makes sense” to him.

Zionsville already offers a full-day kindergarten program of sorts. Students can attend a half-day of instruction with a certified teacher, paid for by the school system, then spend the rest of the day in an enrichment program with uncertified staff.

That enrichment program, called Beyond the Kindergarten Bell, costs parents about $3,300 a year.

“I was shocked that that was his recommendation, not to take the money,” said Beth Ann Kaltenmark, who has a daughter in Zionsville’s all-day kindergarten and enrichment program.

Kaltenmark, who also has a third-grader in Zionsville’s schools, said Robison’s concerns about full-day kindergarten requiring cuts in other parts of the school are understandable. The teacher layoffs announced April 23 will eliminate middle school foreign language and year-round art classes, as well as band, orchestra and choir for fifth- and sixth-graders.

“I feel we have other ways to get around these spending issues,” said Kaltenmark, who will support the May 8 property tax increase as a “necessary evil.” Akindergarten-fevers.gif similar property tax increase was voted down by 61 percent of Zionsville voters in 2010.

But Robison and the Zionsville school board contend there are no longer any ways around the district’s budget challenges.

Zionsville already receives the lowest amount of base state funding of any school district in the state, about $5,200 per student. That’s because Zionsville has few low-income students, students speaking English as a second language, and students from single-parent families.

The state school funding formula tries to direct more money to schools with higher percentages of low-income students, single-parent students and students still learning English because they are perceived to have more difficulty at school.

Zionsville’s plethora of high-priced homes used to produce healthy property tax revenue, which helped fund building projects and boosted its level of funding calculated by the state funding formula.

But after the Legislature capped residential property taxes at 1 percent of assessed valuations in 2008, Zionsville’s property tax revenue has swooned. Those funds are also restricted; they can be used only for capital projects.

Zionsville also built aggressively over the past dozen years as its enrollment doubled. But the housing market crash in 2007 slowed its enrollment growth, leaving the school district with room for 30 percent more students than it actually has.

Given those challenges, Ellen Niksch, who has three children in Zionsville’s schools, said avoiding full-day kindergarten for now is the smartest decision.

“It would be the fiscally responsible thing to do right now,” said Niksch, who has been active supporting the May 8 referendum. “We have to make sure the students we already have are covered.”•

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