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Medford reconsiders full-day kindergarten

Medford School District administrators changed their minds about offering a three-quarter-day kindergarten program after learning that the state would provide only partial funding for it.

In December, elementary principals and other district administrators proposed that the district offer a three-quarter-day kindergarten program on the basis that it was more developmentally appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds than a full-day program.

“When we recommended three-quarter day, we thought we would get the full-day funding,” Julie Evans, the district’s director of elementary education, explained to the Medford School Board during a work session Monday.

“But with a three-quarter-day program, we would only get half-day funding,” she said.

Therefore, administrators are now recommending that the board approve a full-day kindergarten program to roll out this fall. 

The state currently provides only half-day kindergarten funding to districts, but starting this fall it will provide full-day funding to districts offering 900 or more hours of instruction to kindergartners and half-day funding to districts offering less.

Although the Medford School District has been evaluating its options for more than a year and researching the benefits of a half- versus full-day program, board members and educators were skeptical about whether the state would come through with the necessary funding.

However, on Jan. 15, Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, released their budget framework for the 2015-17 biennium, in which they allocated $220 million for full-day kindergarten.

“I voted against (Senate Bill 248) when it came up in 2011 because, at the time, I couldn't see the pathway to be able to fund it,” Buckley said Tuesday. “But because of the work we've been doing … and because the economy is recovering, it’s great that we are able to do it.”

Buckley said the state has the ability to maintain this level of funding into “the foreseeable future.”

“(But) if there’s a downturn in the economy, full-day kindergarten would be vulnerable to reduction just like any other state-funded program,” he said.

At Monday’s work session, Brad Earl, Medford’s chief financial officer, told the school board he didn't think there was any risk the district wouldn't get the promised funding.

The district currently employs 29 full- and part-time kindergarten teachers for about $2.07 million.

“But, ultimately, what we’ll end up with is 46 people teaching all day,” said Earl.

The district also would need to hire about 23 part-time support staff, purchase additional curriculum and furniture, provide training for all kindergarten teachers and rent modulars for schools — Hoover, Jackson, Lone Pine, Wilson and Kennedy elementary schools — without the space to accommodate full-day kindergarten, Evans said.

The district estimates it will cost about $6.1 million to implement a full-day program for 1,000 kindergartners this fall but is anticipating it will receive nearly $6.9 million from the state, leaving about an $800,000 surplus in the first year, Earl said.

The recurring annual cost of full-day kindergarten would be about $5.4 million, he added.

Evans said the district will provide professional development for its kindergarten staff to ensure that teachers are providing thoughtful lessons suited to the needs of young learners.

“We don’t want it to be playtime … but we also don’t want it to be so rigorous that it is blowing our kindergartners out of the water,” she told the school board Monday.

The board is expected to vote on the subject at its Feb. 9 meeting.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.