Paying for kindergarten? Minneapolis all-day plan has more questions than answers

Facing a $13 million budget hole for the upcoming school year, Minneapolis school leaders are exploring a new moneymaker: charging families for all-day kindergarten programs, using a sliding fee scale.

Chief Financial Officer Peggy Ingison presented the idea at a February school board meeting, saying the district hoped to raise $500,000 next school year through a sliding fee all-day kindergarten program. The proposal is in rough form. Major questions loom.

The district now has 3,029 kids in kindergarten and more than two-thirds of them are already in free all-day kindergarten classes, said Marjorie Rolland, the district’s director of finance. One option is creating a sliding-fee program for the 78 all-day kindergarten classrooms that already exist. Another option is expanding all-day kindergarten programs to more schools, using a cost-plus fee structure. “I don’t think all the details of that have been worked out yet,” Rolland said.

Depending on how it shakes out, the plan could cut one of two ways. If the fee-based program expands to serve more middle-income families, similar to some suburban programs, families could see it as a new and positive amenity. This would be an option they didn’t have before. But if families perceive the district’s fee system as unfair, either as a money grab or as a sign that getting basic school services depends on having disposable income, it could pose a public relations problem.

Ingison said most surrounding districts are being more aggressive in the fee area. “What I have seen is other districts that are using it as a little bit of a marketing tool,” she said of fee-based all-day kindergarten programs. “If we get them [families] in here at kindergarten, then we get them in our school district.”

School Board Director Tom Madden said he had not seen enough to get on board. “Certainly some of the districts that we lose kids to aren’t charging for all-day K,” he said. “This would only exacerbate the problem for us.”

Charging for all-day kindergarten seems to be digging for money near a political hot wire, but a look at other proposed cuts shows a difficult budget picture.

CFO Ingison’s proposal to close the 2008-09 budget gap includes reductions in funding to individual schools ($1.1 million), leasing vacant school space ($1 million), administrative cuts ($2 million) and dipping into reserves ($2 million). Add up all the proposed cuts and the district is still $900,000 short of balancing the budget.

The single biggest part of the budget fix, $5 million, comes from anticipated savings from recent state changes in a complicated reimbursement system. That figure is based on last year’s numbers, but Ingison is wary of other cost shifting. She said she was nervous about getting the $5 million estimated savings.

In addition to the $13 million in cuts it seeks, the district hopes to find $6 million in new money to jump start its recently approved strategic plan, including such things as the Principal Academy. The district has approached foundations for help, a district spokeswoman said.

As for the fee-based all-day kindergarten plan, Minneapolis school officials are now surveying surrounding districts about their policies to understand how any change in Minneapolis’ offerings might fit into the educational marketplace.

The Daily Planet sampled five area school districts and found a wide range of strategies for funding all-day kindergarten.

St. Paul and Richfield: The referendum route

St. Paul Public Schools and Richfield both offer free, universal, all-day kindergarten, using referendum money.

In the fall of 2006, St. Paul voters approved a 6-year school referendum that promised it, said Brett Johnson, a district spokesman. According to district publications, the referendum generates $30 million a year, or an increase of $13.5 million a year over the previous referendum. Johnson said the district would spend $2.3 million this school year to pay for all-day kindergarten.

St. Paul families have first priority for all-day kindergarten programs. It accepts students through open enrollment on a space available basis. The out-of-district families provide their own transportation.

Richfield Superintendent Barbara Devlin said surveys had shown that increasing numbers of district children were not ready for kindergarten, and it was a particular problem for low-income families. The district uses a combination of referendum dollars and state compensation aid to pay for it. “We have such a high percentage of students who are low income, we feel we are better off if we are able to … pay for anybody who wants it,” she said.

Richfield gives first priority to resident families, leaving almost no openings for out-of-district transfers, Devlin said. The few open enrollment seats available are reserved for sons and daughters of non-resident district employees.

Anoka-Hennepin, Edina and Bloomington: Fee-based programs

Among districts with fee-based all-day kindergarten, costs were relatively similar but programs took very different approaches to helping low-income families. Some provide free all-day kindergarten to poorer families, others just give a price break.

Districts run the programs through their Community Education departments, because state law prohibits districts charging for a regular part of the K-12 education program, interviewees said.

Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, doesn’t provide any free all-day kindergarten, but low-income families get a price break. Families have two all-day options.

Kindergarten Extra provides a child with full-day kindergarten with licensed teachers and a class size of 22, said Marilyn McKeehen, kindergarten principal in Anoka Hennepin. Families could also choose Adventures Plus, where their child splits time between a traditional kindergarten program and a childcare program, which reinforces the curriculum but does not have licensed teachers. Parents pay $2,700 a year for Kindergarten Extra and $1,700 a year for Adventures Plus.

The district has approximately 350 children in Kindergarten Extra and 200 are in Adventures Plus, McKeehen said, or approximately 20 percent of the district’s kindergarteners. Demand is increasing and next fall the district will add 88 seats.

Community Education Manager Diana Menster-Sullivan said if families quality for free lunch, they pay one quarter of the cost of the all-day program. If they qualify for reduced-price lunch, they pay one-half the program cost.

Edina offers Kindergarten Plus, a full-day program with a licensed teacher, for $335 a month, said Gwen Jackson, the school district’s director of administrative planning and services. The district offers a limited number of full scholarships, and no sliding fee assistance.

Of the 521 students enrolled for full-day kindergarten next fall, the district anticipates giving up to 25 scholarships, reflecting the district’s low poverty rate, Jackson said. To qualify, a family of four may receive up to $26,845 annually, according to the district’s web site.

Edina fills its spots. It admitted 13 non-Edina residents into kindergarten classes this year and has 145 on the waiting list.

Bloomington Public Schools charges $325 a month for Kinder Plus, its all-day kindergarten program. Any student who receives free- or reduced-price lunch qualifies for free all-day kindergarten. Also, all students in the Valley View Elementary School attendance area get free full-day kindergarten.

Scott Russell scottrussell [at] usfamily [dot] net is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.

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    Scott Russell's picture
    Scott Russell

    Scott Russell (scott [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisc

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    Fee for Kindergarten Plus

    Our kids attend Aquila public school in St. Louis Park. So we can utilize the all-day kindergarten, hot lunch as well as their after school programs we pay just shy of $1100 a month. I think its unfortunate that parents cannot enjoy these programs without out-of-pocket expense; however, these schools, state-wide I think are all working with deficits. And I'd rather see the doors remain open and the programs offered, than not. A sliding fee seems fair.