The Richmond Register

September 8, 2013

Let’s begin full-day kindergarten, even if it means modest tax hike

Richmond Register

RICHMOND — Should Madison County join all but a handful of Kentucky districts, including Berea Independent, in providing full-day kindergarten for its children?

The school board can take the first step toward doing that Monday evening by adopting a modest property tax increase, and the Richmond Register encourages them to do so.

Those who support full-day kindergarten should make every effort to attend the 6 p.m. public hearing that will precede the board’s tax rate vote. You can be sure those opposed to increased taxes or school spending will be out in force.

However, the school board should not base its decision on which side brings the most people to the hearing or who speaks loudest or longest.

Would full-day kindergarten be worth increasing the typical homeowner’s tax bill by around $30 a year?

After years of increased spending on “reform” and sometimes costly programs that haven’t lived up to their promise, taxpayers are understandably skeptical about any increased spending on schools.

However, this money won’t be going to high-priced gurus who manage exotic programs.

The additional funding will put teachers in the classroom where they will have more time to teach children at a crucial stage in their development.

Our graduates must compete not just against those from other counties and states, but from other countries as well. Do we really want to let their competition have a head start in learning?

When he reviewed the written comments collected during the process that led to his hiring as superintendent, Elmer Thomas said full-day kindergarten showed up as one of the district’s greatest needs. Even Mary Renfro, the school board member affiliated with the Madison County Tax Watch, had full-day kindergarten as a plank in her election platform.

When he announced his intention to seek a tax increase to fund expanded kindergarten, Thomas said he heard from a teacher who said she was teaching first grade when her district went from half-day to full-day kindergarten. The difference in students entering first grade was remarkable, she said.

Could the nearly $1 million needed to institute full-day kindergarten come from cuts to other programs and central administrative staff?

Given the controversy over a pay raise for the previous superintendent, central office staffing and pay, plus money spent on construction of a new sports complex at Madison Central High School, that is a fair question. And it’s one that Thomas and the board must answer before taxes are raised.

Even before Thomas became superintendent, the board and central administration reduced the current fiscal-year budget by about $2.84 million. If they had not, the only other alternatives were raising taxes or dipping into the district’s reserves.

The superintendent says he is committed to reducing central administrative staff and has already done so. One of the two assistant superintendents who left this year is not being replaced along with other spots left vacant after a few retirements. The savings in central office staff alone totaled nearly $150,000 during Thomas’ first week as superintendent.

When he met with members of the Tax Watch, Thomas said they offered several cost-cutting measures he intends to explore.

Even without a tax increase this year, the district will have to trim expenses down the road. Both state and federal aid to local schools will continue to fall, while the cost of retirement plans, health insurance and unfunded mandates will rise.

With that outlook, should we still invest in full-day kindergarten when we’ve gotten by without it for all these years?

However, we also should ask ourselves if just getting by is good enough.

What do we want for our children? What will they need to compete in an increasingly challenging world?

And, what will be the cost to them and to our society if we are content to only just get by?