Universal pre-K funding provides little relief for Steamboat parents

Parents of students enrolled in the Steamboat Springs School District’s preschool programs expressed their confusion at the cost of tuition for programming at the school board meeting this week.

Frustration has been mounting over the $900 per month tuition that is being billed to parents, roughly the same amount billed during the 2022-23 school year prior to the implementation of the Universal Preschool program.

Many parents assumed that with universal pre-K, or UPK, tuition rates would decrease.

Prior to comments from parents who attended Monday’s Board of Education meeting, district officials provided an overview of preschool costs and how the district arrived at the rate of tuition.

Finance and Operations Director Stephanie Juneau provided a comprehensive review of revenue and expenditures for the 2023-24 school year and emphasized that there had been no tuition increase in three years.

The total cost of the program was calculated at $1.28 million. Maximum preschool enrollment was set at 90 students across six classrooms in three buildings throughout the district. The cost per pupil is $14,220, while the new UPK funds provide $6,121 per student. The difference of $8,100 is being passed along to parents, payable in nine monthly installments of $900.

During the 2022-23 school year, tuition charged to parents was $8,220 per year, also billed monthly throughout the school year. The cost per month to parents was $913.

Juneau explained that since the 2020-21 school year, the difference between the actual cost of pre-K and the tuition charged to parents was funded by a federal grant known as the Child Care Operations Stabilization Grant.

The grant money was tied to federal COVID-19 relief dollars provided to school districts. But the grant funding expired, forcing the district to pass along the gap between actual costs and the new UPK allotment to parents in the form of tuition.

During Juneau’s presentation, it was noted that preschool programming in the current year is five days a week rather than the four days that were provided in the last school year, representing a cost reduction of 20% from 2022-23.

Furthermore, two full-time employees were added to the program, increasing the costs. Increases in operational and overhead costs were also cited as factors in determining the cost of the program.

Parents who spoke at the meeting were not accepting of the district’s explanation. Zoe Morris, a parent of four children in the district, stated that “a tuition increase of this magnitude is not fair to families, especially when there has been no transparency or prior warning.”

Morris then implored the board to implement a tuition-increase policy. Following the meeting, Morris said she “questions overhead costs” the district cited in its budget.

“There are no dedicated counselors, janitors or secretaries for the preschool,” she said. Further, overhead costs such as utilities would exist regardless because the preschool classrooms are located in elementary buildings.

Morris also was critical of the school district dedicating short-term COVID funding to a recurring preschool program and then passing it on to parents in the form of tuition. The loss of the grant revenue was replaced by tuition payments by parents who expected tuition rates to decrease due to the launch of UPK.

“Many alternative funding sources were overlooked, even when the district has a full-time grant writer on staff,” she said.

Little tuition relief seems to be on the way.

Juneau said that the district has applied for a $50,000 grant, but the district will not know if it will be a recipient until Nov. 1. And, according to Juneau, even if the district is fortunate enough to receive the additional funds, it is unlikely that the funds will be earmarked toward tuition relief.

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