Governor Polis' plan to fully fund kindergarten would uniquely impact Steamboat schools | SteamboatToday.com

Governor Polis’ plan to fully fund kindergarten would uniquely impact Steamboat schools

Teacher Carol Harris works with kindergarten students on an art project in 2013. Colorado Governor Jared Polis is pushing for the state to fully fund kindergarten. (Courtesy photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Colorado Governor Jared Polis pushes to fund full-day kindergarten, Steamboat Springs School District is in a unique position as one of only three school districts in the state with a dedicated mill levy covering 42 percent of the cost not currently provided by the state.

With slightly more than a half day of kindergarten funded by the state, at 58 percent, districts have a variety of ways to cover the rest.

Some charge parents tuition, which typically ranges between $200 to $400 per month. Other districts only offer half-day kindergarten programs or parents choose just a half day, and many districts use their own funds to provide full-day kindergarten. Some districts with higher poverty rates qualify for federal funding to cover the remaining funds.

Kindergarten is not mandated in Colorado and still would not be even if the full-day funding is approved. It’s also a step toward Polis’ larger vision to fund preschool.

Funding full-day kindergarten, Polis argues, addresses inequity, especially for parents who can't afford to pay extra for it.

"My top priority this year is to take the first step in building this system by providing access to free, full-day kindergarten to every child in Colorado,” Polis wrote in his first budget proposal letter last week. “We have made progress over the years, through hard work and tough decisions by local school districts, but there are still 13,000 children without access to full-day kindergarten,"

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The plan comes with a price tag of $227 million, and it could be paid for with money freed up by rising property values at the local level, which requires less education backfill from the state.

"Because many schools are already providing full-day kindergarten programs within their existing budgets, our new investment will allow these districts to redirect those funds to new priorities, freeing up formerly dedicated resources to be invested elsewhere,” Polis wrote. “This $100 million in freed up resources can be used flexibly, including to increase teacher pay and reduce class size."

But for Steamboat, Brush and Summit school districts, Polis' notion of freeing up resources for schools who already fund full-day kindergarten doesn't apply because the taxpayers are currently making up the difference.

Hayden and South Routt school districts have free full-day kindergarten, which they pay for out of general funds. Hayden began providing full-day kindergarten at no cost in 2016.

Both districts would benefit by freeing up money in their general fund, and there are always plenty of needs, said South Routt Superintendent Rim Watson.

For Hayden, full state funding frees up about $160,000 per year, according to Hayden Superintendent Christy Sinner.

Prior to the passage of the 2016 mill levy, Steamboat funded a portion of kindergarten out of its general fund and charged parents the rest. The ballot measure narrowly passed, with 5,429 votes in favor to 5,050 against. At that time, the tax added about an additional $5 per $100,000 of assessed property value and $18.50 per $100,000 for commercial property owners.

Before the levy passed, Steamboat charged parents $600 per year, absorbing a significant amount of the cost.

But some skeptics of Polis’ proposal would rather see the governor make the reduction of the state’s massive debt to schools, which now totals about $7.5 billion, a priority.

During the Jan. 28 Steamboat school board meeting, Superintendent Brad Meeks said he would definitely like to see more buy down on the debt. The board members briefly debated how best to respond to the Governor's proposal. They noted they are unique in that they would see no benefit and no net gain if full-day kindergarten is funded by the state.

"It would be a benefit to taxpayers as we would not certify the levy," wrote Meeks in an email interview. "But we wouldn’t see the benefit that the other districts would see with additional resources."

The board noted the local tax was relatively small at approximately $25 annually on $500,000 of assessed property value.

Meeks said the Governor's Office asked the Steamboat district to send them the 2016 mill levy ballot language to review.

“The Governor’s plan to invest $250 million into full-day kindergarten, certainly doesn’t harm our district, but it doesn’t provide the financial benefit it will provide most of the other districts in the state,” Meeks said. “We are asking for consideration from the state that the kindergarten funding that has been generated locally be considered in the $250 million that is being discussed in the state budget, so that Steamboat Springs and the couple of other districts with voter-approved, full-day kindergarten funding can realize the same investment back into their schools that most of the state’s school districts will see should this measure be successful.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.

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