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LP-A to offer free all-day kindergarten

All-day, every-day kindergarten will be offered free by the Lake Park-Audubon School District when school starts this fall.

But parents can still opt for half-time kindergarten if they so desire.

The LP-A School Board voted 4-2 Monday, with one member absent, to offer free full-time kindergarten to those who want it.

Dale Binde, Vicky Grondahl, Rick Olson and Jeff Swetland voted for it and Rick Ellsworth and Mike McIntire voted against it. Lori Bartunek was absent.

The district already offers all-day, every-day kindergarten. There are 22 full-time students and another 16-17 students who attend kindergarten part-time, going on alternate days.

Students pay $7 a day, unless they qualify for free or reduced lunch, then kindergarten is free. The $7 daily fees are expected to generate about $6,000 this fiscal year.

The district employs two kindergarten teachers, Joan Lunde and Laura Mattson, and a paraprofessional who helps with the larger full-time class.

The district now spends about $114,000 a year on salary and benefits for the three staffers.

That would increase to about $141,000 per year with all-day, every-day kindergarten, because the paraprofessional would be replaced by a third kindergarten teacher.

Class sizes would be kept manageable for one teacher, without paraprofessional help, said Superintendent Dale Hogie.

The district would pay for the higher costs through an estimated $32,000 in salary and benefit savings. These savings are associated with the retirement of three teachers that are higher on the pay scale, to be replaced with new teachers starting lower on the pay ladder.

The district expects about 50 kindergarteners this fall, and will adjust its class sizes and staffing to fit the number of full- and part-time kindergarten students.

The cost will essentially be a wash the first year, but -- like the early childhood education program -- all-day, every-day kindergarten will be a long-term benefit to the district, said Grondahl, the school board chairwoman.

That's because thousands of dollars in state aid follow each student, and by establishing students in the Lake Park-Audubon District early, they are more likely to stay for their entire K-12 educational career.

It's considered so important to keep those young students in their home district that the Frazee-Vergas School District -- which is in deep financial trouble -- has also approved all-day, every-day kindergarten for next year, despite its higher costs, said Grondahl, who teaches in Frazee.

The board discussed the pros and cons of the move prior to the vote.

"To me, we have to move forward with this all-day kindergarten," said Binde. "It's going to cost us a little more money, but if we don't it's going to snowball -- we're going to lose people to other districts."

It's a great idea, but the school district can't afford it right now, said Ellsworth. "We have a limited budget," he said. "Every time we get a leg up on it, we find something new to spend it on."

Swetland suggested adding just one section of full-time kindergarten next year to save money. "We don't charge now, do we?" he asked, unaware of the $7 daily fee.

Grondahl said she knows people who open-enrolled their kindergartners in other districts to avoid the LP-A fee.

The higher initial cost will pay off in higher enrollment, and its accompanying per-pupil state funding, down the line, noted Olson.

"Our investment in early childhood education is wasted if we don't have all-day kindergarten," said McIntire.