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All-day kindergarten presents challenges

Classroom space and money were the top issues Sept. 26 when the North Wasco County School District 21 board met to discuss implementation of all-day kindergarten.

“We’re not looking to move elementary school boundaries,” Superintendent Candy Armstrong said. The concern is that the level of student enrollment in District 21 elementary schools has continued to increase while the amount of available space has stayed the same and, in several cases, been stretched to the breaking point to accommodate growth.

Dry Hollow, in particular, has been impacted by the increase in enrollment. Several classes, staff and students have already been relocated and rearranged in order to meet state standards, but the pressure is on to devise a long-term solution, Armstrong said.

“If we don’t get full-day kindergarten, we won’t be able to make the kind of progress we need to be making as quickly as we need to be making it,” Armstrong said. “The question is, how can we do this with the least impact on available facilities, parents and staff?”

In order to make the change, Colonel Wright Elementary will need space for a third kindergarten section, while Chenowith Elementary is projected to need room for four. Dry Hollow will require additional classroom to accommodate an all-day kindergarten program at all.

Personnel cost is another factor. According to Armstrong, the district “really needs another administrator to accommodate the increasing enrollment trend… There has to and will be personnel costs to make this happen.”

Purchasing modular buildings to provide the much-needed extra space is one potential solution under discussion. Another option is to add onto the previously existing structures available to the district. However, Armstrong says, a decision between the two will only be able to be made once the actual cost difference has been determined.

The attraction to the modular option is that any structure directly attached to one of the existing school buildings will require the building to be “brought up to code” in accordance with state regulations. If the board were to decide to go the modular route, these factors would not necessarily weigh as heavily in the decision-making or construction processes.

The sustained need for additional space is “clear in terms of Dry Hollow’s kindergarten enrollment increase,” said Randal Anderson, CPA and chief financial officer for the school district. In the timeline discussed by the board, the decision to move forward will have to be made by November if they want the project completed in time for the 2014-2015 school year.

Referring to Dry Hollow and its pressing lack of space, Armstrong said, “We didn’t move fast enough. To get ahead of it, we need to move now… and we need to be ready for the possibility of increasing enrollment in the other elementary schools,” which will continue to cause similar problems.

According to state standards, the number of students per classroom is currently within the acceptable range. However, since total building capacity is not so stringently regulated, the problem is not so much about having a big enough building for the number of students in attendance, but enough classrooms to house them.

Vice Chairman Ernie Blatz said the reality is “everybody’s been over-building capacity for a while — way over.”

Carol Roderick, director of the board, voiced the concern that it seemed like the board was proposing to “jump in and pour lots of money into a short-term fix.” However, taking more permanent action such as building an entirely new facility, Armstrong said, “won’t eliminate our over capacity problems.”

In terms of the financial backing needed to make full-day kindergarten a reality, board members say they will need to progress further through the project development phase before they can determine site specific costs. However, the current estimate for two modular buildings with four classrooms is $460,000, while one modular building with two classrooms would cost about $230,000. Neither figure includes the cost of employing the additional personnel needed to staff the new classrooms. Total cost for the implementation of the project is expected to be around $2 million and the board will consider ways to generate the needed funds.

“It’s absolutely critical to academic achievement to get full-day kindergarten up and running,” Armstrong said. “Overall, this community loves the children and wants what’s best for them…but this is going to take a lot of long, hard work to pull off.”

An organized tour intended to familiarize members of the board with the school district’s existing assets is scheduled to take place this Saturday and will cover all North Wasco County School District 21 facilities, fields and property.

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