A bid to allow the Sea to Sky School District to offer full-day kindergarten partway through the 2010-2011 school year was turned down by the province, but given the circumstances and funding issues that were revealed recently the board believes that it was probably for the best.
"This is not a decision that came easily to the board," said Chair Rick Price in a press release on Tuesday. "The Ministry of Education would only recognize 194 of the (300) expected kindergarten students as being full time for funding purposes in September 2010, so the board was put in the position of having to choose which students in which schools in which communities would be offered full day kindergarten, and which ones would not. All possible options were explored but in the end, through the lens of fairness, and within the reality of an already difficult budget situation none were feasible."
Last September the Ministry of Education announced only partial funding for full-day kindergarten throughout the province, with plans to fully fund the program in September 2011. The province said the partial funding was necessary because of their own budget constraints, as well as the difficulty in planning classrooms and hiring teachers on short notice.
However, the Sea to Sky School District said it didn't have any issues with either classroom space or teachers and there was no clear way to make distinctions between schools. Other school districts across the province were in a similar position. They turned funding down for September 2010 rather than decide between schools.
Rather than turn down the funding at the Jan. 22 deadline, however, the Sea to Sky School District pursued an idea from a parent to offer half-day kindergarten for the first half of the upcoming school year, then switch to full time for all of the students in the district in January. It would have cost the same and all 300 kindergarten students would have benefited.
However, the province refused and have yet to give the school district an explanation. Pique contacted the Ministry of Education in February and was told that there were issues ranging from classroom space to teacher availability across the province, and the goal was to offer the program through schools that already had additional programming for that age group, like StrongStart B.C.
"Not a very compelling reason," said Price in an interview on Wednesday.
The district did look at other options, such as finding the estimated $250,000 to $300,000 that would have been required to provide full-day kindergarten to the estimated 106 students that would not be covered, but that was not viable given the district's budget issues.
According to Price, it was for the best. Another reading of the Ministry of Education's funding system revealed that there was no additional money available for any full-day kindergarten in 2010 and that the entire cost of offering the program - roughly $450,000 for Sea to Sky - would have to come out of the district's budget of just over $35 million. Rather than make cuts elsewhere, the district decided to pass on the opportunity until September 2011.
Whether the province will provide additional funding for 2011 or put the onus on school districts is still unknown.
"That's a great question to which we do not know the answer," said Price. "I guess you could say that at the very least we're concerned that would be the case (that funding would come from the school board). If that's the case then we will have only deferred this budget challenge for one year, we won't have solved it."
Despite concerns over future budgets, Price says the district is still in support of full-time kindergarten but the partial funding model for 2010-2011 created difficulties.
And full-day kindergarten is just the tip of the iceberg, with the province introducing new budgeting rules for school districts this year.
"The Finance Committee is still in the process of balancing the budget and difficult decisions are yet to be made," said Price. "To further complicate matters we have also been advised that the Ministry (of Education) intends, for the first time this year, to restrict our ability to balance the budget through the use of prior year surpluses. The board could not, in good conscience, add to these serious challenges by accepting the additional cost of full-day kindergarten for the 2010-2011 school year."
A limited number of full-day kindergarten spaces will continue to be available for students who qualify under ESL, First Nations or special education provisions. And the option of paying for full-day care remains an option in some schools. Registration dates for the upcoming year will be announced in the coming weeks.