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Will kindergartners pay up?

To charge or not to charge, that is the question before the Aspen School Board tonight.

The school board, faced with a significant budget deficit, began contemplating in March charging tuition for full-day kindergarten. Currently, the state of Colorado only reimburses schools for a half day of kindergarten; the Aspen School District has traditionally picked up the remaining costs, to the tune of $380,000 annually.

“We’re facing some serious financial issues, and we’ve got to start making some tough decisions,” said school board President Jon Seigle. “We have to be realistic. Everybody in the district is going to have to give something – parents, teachers, students … everybody.”

Under the proposed plan, the Aspen School District would offer tuition-based full-day kindergarten, as well as a free half-day program. Children in the half-day program would actually attend school full days on either Mondays and Wednesdays or Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus alternating Fridays.

But parents, who have vowed to attend tonight’s meeting en masse, aren’t so sure charging for kindergarten is the solution to the district’s financial woes.

A flyer distributed at local daycare centers raises concerns about the school district’s reasoning (“Is the Board being too ambitious with respect to a 3 year re-balancing plan?”), its timing (“Is the lead time for implementation realistic in light of the financial hardship it will cause many families?”), and a host of other issues. It goes on to encourage parents to attend tonight’s meeting, stating “a weak turn-out could be seriously misinterpreted by the Board as a stamp of approval.”

“We’ve obviously gotten a lot of input from various sources – parents, teachers, people from other school districts. But this hasn’t really been discussed at a public level yet, so we’re looking forward to hearing what the community has to say,” Seigle said. “I’d say we’re totally open-minded at this point.”

Still, a handout to be distributed at tonight’s meeting states, “We believe strongly in the educational benefits of a full-day program. However, due to recent budget constraints, we are no longer able to provide this for free.”

The memo, crafted by district officials, goes on to explain that charging for full-day kindergarten is the norm in Colorado (the Roaring Fork School District has a tuition-based program in place), and that in a survey of fees across the state, the price for such programs ranged from $200 to $320 per month.

“To facilitate the attendance of all of our students, we are working on creating a sliding scale that will be comparable to the tuition for other area public school kindergarten programs. The program scale will range from a full tuition waiver to $320 per month,” the memo explains.

Superintendent Dr. Diana Sirko, who is charged with presenting a balanced budget to the school board, knows that regardless of what is charged, parents will be unhappy.

“I don’t think that anyone is going to feel comfortable paying for something that used to be free, that’s a given,” she said. “But after much consideration, this is the recommendation of the financial advisory board.”

It is a recommendation that Seigle, for one, sees as realistic.

“Diana has done a great job of balancing the budget, and she ought to be applauded,” he said. “She has found a way to keep the cuts away from the kids.

“And, honestly, this issue is really just a small cog in the big picture. This is just the first in a series of changes we’re going to have to make. This is the easy part.”

Tonight’s school board meeting begins at 5 p.m. in the Seminar Room on the second floor of Aspen High School. The public is encouraged to attend.

Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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