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Board, residents sound off about Milton 4K proposal

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
December 7, 2010
— If the Milton School Board approves a proposal made Monday by a group of district staff, parents and local childcare providers, the city could join Janesville, Edgerton and other area districts with 4-year-old kindergarten programs.

A big question remains: How would the district fund a program that officials say would have a startup cost of $725,000?


The board heard the proposal after a district study group spent months examining other local 4K programs to develop its own proposal.


Under the plan, the group is asking the board to consider a community-based, public 4K program with 12 half-day class sections based mostly at local daycare and preschool centers.


The program would be optional, free, and available to all 4-year-olds and some 5-year-oldsin the district, and would include transportation. Officials said the program would also be available through open enrollment.


Under an instructional model chosen by the district's 4K committee, the program would use state-approved instruction models involving play-based, hands-on learning, officials said.


District estimates list startup costs for the program at about $725,000, with a $1,200 per-student stipend paid to the district.


Special Education Director Krista Jones said that in 2011-12, the plan would cost the district $466,000 to staff teachers, and transportation costs could total $67,000.


Under the proposal, daycare centers and preschools that house sections of 4K would pay to hire aides.


Officials said the program would run a $500,000 deficit in 2011-12 and a $210,000 deficit in 2013 before finally breaking even in 2014.


Under most public 4K models statewide, programs cost districts in the first two years and then start to break even in future years. Officials say one of the main ways 4K programs pay for themselves is through increased enrollment, which bring in additional state-aid payouts.


The Milton School Board reviewed a district proposal for 4K in 2009, but that was shot down in a 3-3 tie amid some board members' concerns about lack of funding and overall interest in the program.


At the time, some parents and private daycare providers argued public 4K would force parents to choose between free preschool and religious instruction.


Monday, a few parents spoke in support of the program.


Resident Jason Busch said he has an infant son and he'd like to see a 4K program in Milton.


"It's an opportunity for parents and students to get into the school system early to be learning," Busch said.


"We hear all of the time in the news about how our students are falling behind," he said. "Why wouldn't we want our students to have every educational opportunity available to them?"


Board member Al Roehl asked administrators on Monday how the district would initially pay for the program.


Milton Superintendent Bernie Nikolay and other school officials said the district earlier had considered dipping into its fund balance to start a 4K program, but Nikolay said it's possible the district will have a surplus to fund education programs in 2011-12.


Also, officials said the district is poised to apply for state grants that fuel 4K programs, although the grants often wouldn't necessarily cover full per-pupil costs.


On Monday, Nikolay said the district could pay for the program with savings it could see when it switches teacher insurance carriers in January.


Mary Ellen Van Valin, district business manager, said the district would have a better idea of how a 4K program would affect the budget at a board meeting Dec. 13.


Some residents voiced concerns about the high up-front cost to start the program, pointing out that the board has no clear source of funding.


"It seems like there's a lot of hoping here. We're hoping for state aid, we're hoping to increase students," said Wayne Cornwell of Milton.


Arlene Koniecki of Milton said she was worried about how costs of a 4K program—even if it were grant-funded—would affect people on a fixed income.


"If people want their 4-year olds in preschool, let them pay for it," she said.


Lynda Clark of Milton suggested the district publish costs publicly and online immediately to give taxpayers a heads-up on costs of the proposal.


Nikolay said the district plans to post information and a recording of Monday's meeting on its website.


Officials have said the board could vote on the 4K program as early as Dec. 13, but board President Rob Roy said that's unlikely.


For one, the board still hasn't seen an initial review of district budget figures, and it won't until early next week.


Roy said the board is "wanting to know if we're going to have to make (budget) cuts … and if we're making cuts in other places, does it make sense to add a new program. We can't address any of these (questions) until we see budget numbers."


Roy said it's possible the board could consider the 4K program at a special meeting in late December or early January.



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