Free full-day kindergarten hinges on tax vote

April 14, 2010

East Valley Tribune

Michelle Reese

Gilbert families will not pay tuition for full-day kindergarten in the fall if voters approve on May 18 a temporary 1-cent increase in the state sales tax.

The Gilbert Unified School District governing board reversed its earlier direction to district leaders — to charge tuition for full-day kindergarten — after new budget numbers were presented during a packed meeting Tuesday night.

Arizona lawmakers put a state sales tax increase on the May ballot to raise about $1 billion a year over the next three years. That funding is needed because of an expected revenue shortfall the state is facing. Much of the funding raised by the tax is targeted for education.

Without that tax, state leaders say they will need to make further cuts to Arizona’s public school system.

The Gilbert school district’s leaders presented budget possibilities to the governing board last week. Based on those numbers, the board directed the staff not to offer a free, full-day program in the fall.

But on Tuesday, Superintendent Dave Allison reported that the state updated information about how to calculate money coming in from a previously approved education sales tax — known as Proposition 301.

“The numbers changed three times,” Allison said.

The result: The district is receiving about $2 million more than it anticipated.

But the board cautioned that without a positive result on May 18 for Proposition 100, the new sales-tax vote, the district won’t be able to afford a free option for families.

Parents would have to pay $155 a month if they choose to enroll in a full-day kindergarten program, Dianne Bowers, district spokeswoman said.

“I feel we are in a reasonable place from the standpoint of offering free full-day (kindergarten) if the sales tax passes. I feel pretty good about that,” board president Thad Stump said Wednesday. “I don’t anticipate this subject being revisited. I have more confidence now that we’re working with the right numbers.”

Most surrounding school districts, including Mesa, Higley and Chandler, have announced they will not charge tuition next school year for full-day kindergarten. Queen Creek Unified School District announced it will charge $200 a month.

The state has funded full-day kindergarten in school districts and charter schools for the last three years. But next school year, the state will only provide the funds for half-day kindergarten. That decision was made by lawmakers as part of budget cuts needed to offset an estimated $4.4 billion revenue shortfall for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Other cuts are also being made to education in Arizona, include lower per-student funding.

The Gilbert district has a May 1 deadline to let teachers know they may not have a contract next school year. Bowers said about 60 kindergarten teachers will get a reduction-in-force (RIF) notice. They could, however, be issued contracts later after results of the May 18 sales tax vote are known.

In addition, about 70 teachers in mostly secondary grades will also receive RIF notices May 1, she said. That’s because the district is in the process of increasing class sizes at the high schools and junior highs to a 27 to 1 ratio, a decision made last spring.

The governing board also heard a budget update from school leaders on Tuesday.

The administration presented budget plans on April 6 that included two budget scenarios: one if the tax vote passes and one if it doesn’t. The plan included a number of areas to cut depending on what happens.

Some of those ideas included cutting art class for grades one through six, eliminating junior high athletics, changing staffing for “general” instructional aides at the elementary schools and cutting some social workers.

Because of the comments made by the public, and the change in budget numbers, those suggestions are now off the table, Allison said.

A clearer picture of the budget and potential cuts should be posted online Friday or Monday, Bowers said.

Also on Tuesday, the governing board approved a new elementary school schedule for the music, art, library, physical education and computer technology classes the students rotate through. Currently, most schools rotate through those classes every six days.

With the new plan, students will rotate through those classes every five days, with some changes during weeks when there is an early release or holiday.

The plan does decrease the amount of time the fifth- and sixth-grade band and orchestra meet over the course of the school year. But it makes minimal changes to the other areas overall. Students will actually spend more time in library than they currently do.

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