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New transitional kindergarten program faces budget squeeze


Sonoma County school districts are wrestling with how to proceed this fall with the state's new transitional kindergarten program now that Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting funds set aside for its implementation.

Under Brown's plan, the state would save about $224 million in 2012-13 by having fewer students in school after the kindergarten cutoff date is moved from Dec. 2 to Nov. 2.

The 2010 bill that authorized the change calls for additional changes in ensuing years: limiting enrollment to children to turn 5 by Oct. 2 in 2013-14 and by Sept. 1 in 2014-15. Theoretically, that would provide additional savings to state coffers.

However, the legislation also requires districts to offer children born in that three month window a year of transitional kindergarten followed by a year of traditional kindergarten.

That requirement, despite the uncertainty over funding, remains in place.

"The bottom line is, we don't have enough information to do anything different than what this law requires," said Gail Eagen, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Santa Rosa City Schools.

"My greatest concern is the message that this gives parents we are trying to welcome into the system," she said. "I think it is horribly confusing for parents."

And Eagen questioned the proposed savings — something she said won't appear on state ledgers until the transitional kindergarten kids move through the system and get 14 years of schooling instead of 13.

Kindergarten registration for the fall begins Jan. 17 in Santa Rosa City schools, Sonoma County's largest school district,and school site officials will collect information on campus choices as well as birth dates.

The district will configure transitional kindergarten programs depending on how many students choose that option and at what campuses, Eagen said.

"We hope to have one at every campus," she said.

"We can stop at any time," she said. "What we can't do is stop now and then find out three or four months from now, or god forbid, in July, that we have to have the program."

Eagen said she is keeping an eye on how things unfold in Sacramento, but is addressing the per-pupil funding issue by asking parents who choose transitional kindergarten for their "young fives" to sign an existing agreement that the student would attend two years of kindergarten.

That "continuance" form would be signed at the beginning of the year, not at the end when the determination is usually made that a child needs another year, and would allow districts to collect state per-pupil funding, she said.

In Rohnert Park, schools officials also are moving forward with enrollment to transitional kindergarten — because it's the law, said Superintendent Robert Haley.

"The legislation that is in place calls for transitional kindergarten next year, so we want to be prepared," he said. "We are in an area where nobody is sure what is going to happen, so I think the main thing is to stay in contact with parents."

"Whether funded or unfunded, any student that is ready for kindergarten in 2012-13, we will have a place for that student," he said.

The timing couldn't be worse, said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education, which has been running training and informational programs for months to ready districts for the new program.

"It puts the districts in a very awkward spot," she said. "That is the part that gets everybody so frustrated. We've got our packets, we are on the radio talking about it."

The program is worth running, she said, but in tight financial times, when other programs are being slashed, districts are facing dire choices.

"The conversation around the state was, &‘Look, we are cutting a lot of existing programs, why are we adding more programs?'" she said.

]Staff writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.