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Finding the funding formula: statewide talk of all-day, every-day kindergarten rekindles talk of spending priorities

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BEMIDJI – The local school board would have some decisions to make if the state Legislature approves funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten.

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The Bemidji School District already offers all-day, every-day kindergarten, though the state now only pays .621 of that cost.

A portion of the $501 per-pupil operating levy, which voters in November extended another seven years, covers the remaining costs.

"When kids start school with a good strong start, we can close those achievement gaps and the students can be on a much more likely path to success," said Jim Hess, superintendent of the Bemidji School District.

If the Legislature does approves full funding for all-day, every-day kindergarten, the Bemidji school board would be tasked with deciding what to do with its subsequent extra levy funds.

"It would be a marvelous opportunity if it comes about," said Ann Long Voelkner, a school board member.

Long Voelkner said she hopes the school board and district administration take the time to fully explore the district’s options and discuss priorities.

The House already has approved the kindergarten funding in its omnibus education bill; the Senate was debating the education bill Thursday.

It seems likely that if funding is made available for all-day, every-day kindergarten, it would begin in 2014-2015.

"We should have more than adequate time to be able to make an informed decision about what we may need or want to do," Long Voelkner said. "I would like to engage the community."

Even if state funding is increased, it would not provide any resources for K-1, the district’s pre-kindergarten program for younger 5-year-olds not quite ready for kindergarten.

K-1 does not receive any state funding toward its cost, Hess noted. "K-1 will still be funded entirely from district resources," he said.

The operating levy provides funding for three key goals: offering all-day, every-day kindergarten to all students; purchasing buses; and keeping class sizes low.

Hess said one option for the school board to consider — if there is an overlap between the operating levy and full state funding of kindergarten — would be for the Bemidji School District to "under levy" the difference.

"The board has a strong history of not levying more than absolutely necessary," Hess said.

Hess said the school board has a long history of "under levying," or levying less than allowed under state formulas. For instance, the board this year levied nearly $800,000 less than its maximum levy amount.

Scott Anderson, director of Schoolcraft Learning Community, a public charter school offering grades K-8, said any increased state funding would benefit Schoolcraft, which has offered all-day, every-day kindergarten since the school was founded.

"For us, and all of the districts that offer this kind of program, we basically make up of the difference out of our general funds," he said.

Anderson said he has long been in favor of increased kindergarten.

"It has, for the last several years, been one of those top three conversation points that we’ve had" with legislators, he said.

Likewise, advocating for full kindergarten funding from the state has been a top priority for the Bemidji School District for eight years, Hess said.

"To get that over into the ‘done’ column instead of the ‘to do’ column would be great cause for celebration," he said.

He is cautiously optimistic it will happen this year.

Hess, president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, was in St. Paul on Tuesday lobbying for the funding increase. He said he believes there is "strong support" for its passage this year.

"People realize that kindergarten is not really a cost," he said. "It’s much more of an investment."

Roundtable today to discuss education

BEMIDJI – Two state commissioners will be in town this morning to hold a public roundtable on early-childhood investments.

Brenda Cassellius, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, and Lucinda Jesson, commissioner of the Department of Human Services, will host a roundtable from 10-11:15 a.m. today at the American Indian Resource Center to discuss early-childhood investments included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget.

According to a press release, Dayton’s budget includes expanded early-education scholarships so more students have access to high-quality child care and preschool, help Minnesota school districts provide optional all-day kindergarten to students free of charge, increase the number of children finding permanent homes, prevent child abuse and neglect, and assist parents, particularly teenage parents, complete their education and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

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