Higley to offer free all-day kindergarten: School chief says move is to keep district competitive

The Higley Unified School District has decided to offer free full-day kindergarten for the upcoming school year.

Higley decided last month it would charge $275 a month for a full-day program, should the state cut the funding source.

However, Interim Superintendent Denise Birdwell said Thursday there was no way they can charge for the kindergarten program if surrounding districts are not charging for it. kindergarten enrollment has already been down and some parents had said they would have to send their children to another district.

"To stay competitive, we are put in this position," Birdwell said.

School districts are still waiting to hear if funding for the full-day program will be included in next year's budget. Their most recent conversations with legislators indicate more general cuts from school budgets, rather than targeted programs.

Legislators are working to address a possible $3.3 billion shortfall in revenue next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The governing board did not have to vote on the issue at its Thursday night meeting. District officials had already decided it would offer the free fullday program and began alerting families about it last week, said Dawn Foley, the director of instructional support.

"All the families we contacted were overwhelmingly supportive and thrilled," Foley said. "A lot of parents were waiting to register until they knew whether or not we would be charging a tuition for full-day kindergarten."

Although the district is unsure how it will pay for the full-day program until the budget is figured out, officials are exploring asking voters to approve a K-3 budget override on the November ballot. The school board discussed the $1.4 million budget override Thursday night, and will have to decide by the end of May or early June whether to put it on the ballot, Birdwell said.

"I'll talk to the Parent Superintendent Council on Monday and we may ask parents on our list serve to see if the support is there," she said.

The money would have to be used to improve kindergarten to third-grade programs. It could be used to reduce class sizes in the lower grades by hiring additional teachers, and to provide funding for fullday kindergarten.

Because this is the first time the district has asked voters to approve a K-3 budget override, it would be a tax increase to homeowners.

Board president Greg Land said Thursday it's "going to be a tough sell with the economy." He expressed concern of how the district would roll out the override plan to voters, and said Higley needs to improve how it sells the plan to the community. Higley's $4.85 million maintenance and operations budget override renewal narrowly passed last November, he reminded district officials.

"My personal goal is to do better and show the benefits of the override," Land said.

Besides providing the free full-day kindergarten, Higley is continuing its early entrance kindergarten testing now for a $45 fee because of budget constraints. The money will be used to pay teachers to give the tests outside of their regular school day. Screening will begin at the end of May, Foley said.

The district is also offering a new half-day kindergarten prep program for 4- and 5-year-olds at Centennial Elementary School. The prep program will cost $275 a month per child, and is designed to get children ready for kindergarten.
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