September 18, 2014

Elyria
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Kindergarten must be free, state decrees

Attorney general says schools can’t charge for all-day classes

ELYRIA — Kindergarten at public schools has to be free, says Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, which could mean five of Lorain County’s 15 school districts may have to stop taking tuition money for their full-day classes.

An opinion filed by Dann earlier this month argues that even though the state only funds half-day classes, schools can’t charge parents for longer class times, even to cover the cost of extra teachers.

That could have a big impact on the Avon, Avon Lake, Brookside, Firelands and Wellington schools, which each charge $200 per month and up to run all-day kindergarten.

Losing that income could mean taking a $500,000 blow over the next five years, or even cutting other services to compensate, Avon Lake Superintendent Bob Scott said.

“That’s scary for us to even have to think about because that money would have to come right out of the general fund,” he said. “We don’t really have that money.”

Worse, if Dann’s opinion forces the district to refund parents for tuition already paid this year, he said it would amount to losing the salaries of two kindergarten teachers.

Superintendent Jim Reitenbach of the Avon Schools said his full-day tuition generates $300,000 a year and helps keep seven teachers employed. As a result, kindergarten classes have an average of 22 kids, rather than 44.

The opinion isn’t law, but may eventually become a state mandate, said Kevin McIver, chief of the opinion division in the attorney general’s office. The issue was picked up by Dann in May, he said.

Only one school district head — Superintendent Russell Bennett of the Aurora Schools — has called to complain about the financial impact the opinion could have, McIver said.

Others are left confused and have consulted lawyers, such as Victor Cardenzana, superintendent of the Wellington Schools, where 25 students pay to attend full-day classes.

It may come to challenging the opinion in court, but for now he is waiting to see whether the state tries to enforce Dann’s ruling, he said.

Some districts have  to offer full-day kindergarten with no charge. Elyria launched its program 10 years ago, and has experienced enough demand to open two additional facilities to house the classes, Elyria Schools spokeswoman Amy Kren said.

Clearview, Columbia, Lorain, Oberlin and Vermilion also have free full-day programs. Midview and Keystone run full-day kindergarten three times a week in lieu of half-days five times a week.

Contact Jason Hawk at 653-6264 or jhawk@chroniclet.com.