Opponents critical of kindergarten mill levy proposal | SteamboatToday.com

Opponents critical of kindergarten mill levy proposal

Jordyn Lottes smiles at a classmate while the Soda Creek kindergarten class sings a song during the school's end-of-year talent show in June 2015.

— Some vocal opponents have emerged to question the Steamboat Springs School District’s proposed mill levy override to fund all-day kindergarten.

Clark resident Don Mathis said during an election forum Oct. 20 that the district is asking for far more through the mill levy than parents paid in tuition this year and added the mill levy would raise money for a "slush fund" the district could use for anything.

"3C is very vague," Mathis said.

An Oct. 22 letter to the editor from Dennis Brust also questioned why the proposed mill levy would generate $530,000 or more for the district, when parents during the current school year are contributing only $600 per student, which totals about $99,600 in tuition.

"No doubt, the majority of people believe the merits of full-day kindergarten are worth pursuing, and for $99,600, it in fact would be for the kids," wrote Brust, a father of five. "According to the Steamboat Today article, the amount charged next year would be $530,000. That leaves nearly $440,000 over what it cost the community this year for the same services."

While it's true parents this year are paying tuition expected to total only about $100,000, district leaders have said there is no guarantee the district will be able to keep tuition at the $600 level in future years.

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Steamboat Springs School District Director of Finance Mark Rydberg said the tuition amount has never reflected the actual per-student cost of running the program.

"It is not meant to represent what the true cost of the program is. It's meant to be something that is low enough that it doesn't cause people in our community to not send their kids," Rydberg said.

Districts statewide receive only 58 percent of per pupil funding for kindergarten students, leaving them to absorb the remaining 42 percent through other areas of the budget, charge tuition or offer only a half-day program.

For the current year, this means that, while the district receives $7,400 for every first- through 12th-grade student, it only receives $4,300 for kindergarteners, a difference of $3,100.

Historically, the district charged $2,400 of the $3,100 in tuition and pulled the rest from the district's general fund.

During the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, when tuition was set at $2,400 per student, the district was poised to collect $420,000 and $450,000 in tuition each year, based on student count. The actual amounts collected were about $300,000 and $385,000, likely due to fluctuating enrollment, part-time students or scholarships.

For the 2015-16 school year, the Education Fund gave the district $330,000 toward tuition for about 175 students, with the rest of the costs to be absorbed by the district.

In response to whether the district is creating a "slush fund," Rydberg acknowledged that having the kindergarten money generated through the mill levy would free up other money in the district budget.

"Absolutely true. We're going to free up $500,000 that the board can do something different with. But that's not why we're doing this," Rydberg said. "This is about creating a revenue stream that creates consistency and permanency for full-day kindergarten funding."

Though it will be up to the school board to direct district administrators on how to allocate money that would be freed up were the mill levy to pass, Superintendent Brad Meeks has said he will recommend the freed up money be used for deferred maintenance.

Mathis has said while he supports the idea of funding full-day kindergarten, he feels the ballot language for the tax is too vague and doesn't guarantee the money will be used for kindergarten, only that kindergarten services will be provided.

He'd like to see the language rewritten and, ideally, a smaller tax that would more closely reflect what the community is paying toward kindergarten this year.

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

By the numbers:

Kindergarten students this year: 166

2016 state funding for 1st through 12th grade students: $7,400 per student

2016 state funding for kindergarteners: $4,300

Unfunded cost per kindergartener: $3,100

2016-17 tuition: $600

2015-16 tuition: $0

2014-15 tuition: $2,400

2013-14 tuition: $2,400

Example: Unfunded cost per kindergartener (approx. $3,100 this year) x expected number of students (170) = mill levy tax of approx. $530,000

Referendum 3C ballot language:

Shall Steamboat Springs School District No. RE-2 taxes be increased up to $950,000 annually beginning in 2017 for the purpose of providing funding for full-day kindergarten program costs for those parents who choose to participate in the full-day program (or such lesser amount as is permitted under section 22-54-108.5); and shall the district be authorized to collect, retain and spend all revenues from such taxes and the earnings from the investment of such revenues as a voter approved revenue change and an exception to the limits which would otherwise apply under Article X, Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution?