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Education Matters: The littlest learners

A data-driven presentation on the benefits of transitional kindergarten (TK) was provided to the five local Basic Aid districts last month by North County community member Allison Trent.

Marsha Sutton
(File photo)

Of the four districts that included the presentation on recent agendas, the Del Mar Union School District was the only one that held an open session discussion.

The Cardiff, Encinitas and Solana Beach school districts did not discuss the issue in open session. Donna Tripi, superintendent of the fifth district, Rancho Santa Fe, said she did not receive a request to place TK on the agenda.

At their board meetings, Cardiff, Del Mar, Encinitas and Solana Beach had two presentations: Trent’s – which was extensive, thorough and research-based – and one developed by each school district.

All four of the districts’ presentations tried to justify why TK was not required for Basic Aid districts, which are those primarily funded by property taxes rather than a per-pupil apportionment from the state.

Although the four presentations had some unique elements, the similarities were striking. Several districts referred to services provided by the same counsel – La Jolla law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

AALRR lawyer Mark Bresee did not respond to two requests for comment.

Trent believes that TK was discussed by each district in closed session, under the vague “threat of litigation” excuse.

“I noticed Cardiff, Encinitas and Solana Beach all had closed sessions for ‘anticipated litigation’ in April, and I suspect it was to discuss TK, although no topic was listed on their agendas,” Trent said in an email. Del Mar specifically mentioned TK as the subject of its closed session.

“The reason for ‘anticipated litigation’ that Del Mar provided was that I was emailing [my presentation to] all five Basic Aid school districts … and that is the proof of threat,” Trent said.

“I’ve since been advised that any statement about having a ‘right’ or being ‘entitled’ to something is an excuse for the school district to make a closed session for anticipated litigation.”

DMUSD Superintendent Holly McClurg told me that TK was discussed in closed session at a special board meeting April 19, “because of the threat of litigation.” She said legal counsel determined that potential.

Trent was adamant that there was no threat.

“I am simply doing what any concerned citizen ought to do to keep public agencies accountable,” she said. “The fact that they turned parent advocacy for TK into a ‘threat of litigation’ is an example of the overly litigious nature of these Basic Aid school districts wasting taxpayer dollars on lawyers instead of just listening and engaging with the community.”

Background

Transitional kindergarten was instituted by the state 10 years ago when legislation was changed regarding birth dates for children entering kindergarten. Previously, children could enroll in kindergarten if they turned 5 by Dec. 2.

For the 2012-2013 school year, the deadline to turn 5 was moved to Nov. 1. It was moved to Oct. 1 for 2013-2014 and to Sept. 1 for 2014-2015 – and each school year thereafter.

To address the needs of those “young 5s,” TK was created.

Under the law, in the 2012-2013 school year, children who turned 5 between Nov. 2 and Dec. 2 could enroll in a TK program. In 2013-2014, children who turned 5 between Oct. 2 and Dec. 2 could enroll in TK. And in 2014-2015, TK was to be provided to children turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2.

The five Basic Aid districts did provide TK during those 2012-2015 years when the birth dates were moved back month by month, but then afterward voted to end the program.

DMUSD’s McClurg said the district chose to provide that service then, but it was not technically required for Basic Aid districts.

Trent, who argues that TK should be provided by all districts, whether Basic Aid or not, said the legal opinion that Basic Aid districts don’t have to provide TK “is just that, an opinion.”

Trent said the California Department of Education, under Education Code Section 48000, “takes a clear stance that TK is required.”

She said 99 percent of all California school districts that offer kindergarten also offer TK. Of the nearly 1,000 school districts in the state, about 90 are Basic Aid. Of those 90, all but 11 offer TK. Five of the 11 are the North San Diego County districts she contacted.

“Why are these coastal districts the outliers?” she said.

“These districts say they are ‘premier’ or ‘award winning’ but are lagging all their peers by refusing to provide TK. Sad that they see TK as a risk/reward to their own finances and are clearly not considering children’s needs.”

The irony is that Basic Aid districts generally have more funding from property taxes than non-Basic Aid districts receive from the state.

According to DMUSD’s presentation, the funding for the 2020-2021 school year amounted to about $13,575 per student.

Biased presentation

Trent credited Del Mar for holding an open discussion among board members at its April 28 meeting, but the outcome of the two-hour-and-20-minute discussion was not encouraging.

The presentation listed every reason under the sun why TK should not be provided, noting that constraints for adding TK include rising pension costs and the cost in 2020-2021 of $3.75 million for offering extra-curricular programming known as STEAM+ ($2.65 million from the district and $1.1 million from private donations through Del Mar’s foundation).

Reasons why TK was not being recommended included cost and facilities, the district’s focus on K-6 programming and that TK is not equitable since it’s only for children turning 5 in the fall.

“I felt the presentation was very skewed,” said trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick, after the meeting. “That was disheartening. I was optimistic that they would have more impartiality with the presentation.”

Transitional kindergarten would provide a full school year for children turning 5 in the three fall months of Sept., Oct., and Nov.

Staff estimated that 128 children with fall birthdays would be eligible for TK next year, representing about 25% of the total pre-kindergarten population if it were to expand to include all 4-year-old children.

In a phone interview, McClurg said she is not resistant to providing TK but that it should be evaluated “according to priorities and the finite resources that we have.”

“I know what our priorities have been and what our stakeholders have been very clear about,” she said, citing the district’s investment in small class sizes, the Spanish language program and STEAM+.

“We cannot continue to maintain the same educational programming and incorporate another grade level without making changes.”

Declining enrollment

Fitzpatrick said TK is viable, given the decline in district enrollment, capacity for additional classrooms and increased funding from higher property taxes.

McClurg said the enrollment decline is expected to turn around.

“Our demographic study does not point to overall decline in enrollment for this district as we look to the future,” she said.

Whether only offering TK to children with fall birthdays is inequitable, McClurg said there are two considerations: is it legal and is it right.

“It’s probably legal to do so,” she said. “It’s within the statute so you can do that.”

“So many Basic Aid districts across the state have maintained TK programs, because I think they see the value in it,” Fitzpatrick said.

She said she would like to see more direct advocacy from the district.

“What are we doing to be proactive about getting funding so that we can offer this program in our district?” she asked.

Since that April 28 board meeting, Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his proposed budget revision, made universal transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds a priority.

Currently TK is offered only to children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. According to EdSource, starting in 2022-2023, TK would be expanded in annual increments, first to children turning 5 by March 2, then in 2023-2024 for birthdays by July 2, and finally in 2024-2025 for full implementation.

The proposal does not yet specify if Basic Aid districts will be included in this mandate.

Value of new board members

The discussion at Del Mar’s board meeting demonstrates the value of new members on a school board who have young children in the district and can offer fresh perspectives and insights.

Newly elected board members Fitzpatrick and Gee Wah Mok, both of whom have children who would qualify for TK, questioned the district’s assumptions that providing TK would bankrupt the district.

“If we can offer more, it’s better,” Mok said, asking why TK would mean certain bankruptcy.

Board president Erica Halpern said it was moot because the district can’t do it.

Trustee Scott Wooden said TK would come at a cost and take away from other district priorities. He also said it was “not fair” because those children turning 5 in the fall months would “win the birthday lottery.”

Board member Katherine Fitzpatrick objected to the lottery comment.

“We’re not talking about winning a car or a prize,” she said, after the meeting. “We’re talking about educating human beings.”

Fitzpatrick asked the district to survey the community to understand whether expanded early childhood education is a priority.

DMUSD trustee Doug Rafner suggested that the question should be framed in such a way as to say, “Would you support TK if you knew it would bankrupt the district?”

Fitzpatrick, nearing tears, said the question should not be framed as a loss, insisting that there has to be “a plausible way to offer this program without bankrupting our district.”

She said other districts “with thousands and thousands of dollars less than we have” provide TK and that it’s “a disservice to children” for Del Mar not to provide it.

“How do other districts do this?” Mok asked. He said claiming that programs would need to be reduced or cut is “setting up a false dichotomy. Other people can do it – why is it we cannot?”

“You find ways to make it work in the budget if you want it to work,” Fitzpatrick said.

McClurg, who usually keeps her cool, showed signs of impatience, saying sternly that staff would not bring this item forward “at the expense of grades K through 6.”

McClurg said she would consult with her team to determine the best way to get input and feedback, but was noncommittal about specifics.

“Hopefully the conversation doesn’t just die,” Fitzpatrick said.

Speakers

All six speakers at the April 28 board meeting spoke in favor of TK.

Darth Osborne called data presented in the district’s charts misleading, said early childhood education was badly needed, and asked the district to “make a decision to invest in our children.”

“There are countless benefits to early learning,” said Marianne Grosner.

Lynnette Jaiswal said the district was “looking to excuse themselves from having to provide TK.” In an email, she said local Basic Aid districts “claim they don’t have the funding for it, yet they have more money per pupil than many other districts that do provide TK.”

Pranav Jaiswal said the district’s presentation made no mention of the impact on young children. He said he appreciated the fiscal responsibility aspect but “other boards find a way to do this [and] you only talked about why you can’t do this.”

Ulrike Steinbach, who lives in northern California, listed the many benefits of early childhood education and said teachers in first, second and third grades can easily spot the students who benefitted from a year of TK.

The sixth speaker, Allison Trent, said the numbers in the presentation were inaccurate and that Del Mar will be on the wrong side of history if TK is denied.

“To me, the writing is on the wall that TK will be required soon of these Basic Aid districts,” Trent said. “Both Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden are talking about the need for universal pre-K programs in public schools.”

She said there is bipartisan agreement that pre-K programs are a wise investment in the future. “Children should be the first priority.”

The district’s eight schools educate about 4,000 K-6 students, with planning underway for a ninth school in the Pacific Highlands Ranch area.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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