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Fee for full-day kindergarten under attack

The Tigard-Tualatin School District has 165 students whose parents pay for full-day kindergarten

The Oregon Attorney General's office has issued an opinion that tuition-based full-day kindergarten is illegal.

But at least four school districts, including Tigard-Tualatin, will argue Monday in front of a Senate education committee that it's not.

Superintendents from Corvallis, Portland public, West Linn-Wilsonville and Tigard-Tualatin school districts are expected to give testimony about the potential impact that discontinuing tuition-based full day kindergarten could have on districts and students.

'We offer that program because we believe it's superior, and the more who take full-day kindergarten the better,' said Tigard-Tualatin Superintendent Rob Saxton.

Without intervention from legislators, school district officials believe the tuition-based full-day kindergarten programs will have to be discontinued.

'But it's completely fixable by the Legislature,' Saxton said.

In early December, the state attorney general's office and the legislative counsel's office issued opinions that questioned the legality of charging parents for education programs offered in public school districts.

According to the Oregon Department of Justice's review of the practice, a school is prohibited from charging tuition to cover costs associated with a kindergarten's facilities, including its physical facilities, supplies, equipment and personnel.

The revelation came as a surprise to most school districts in the state, 32 of which offer tuition-based full-day kindergarten as an alternative to half-day kindergarten for parents willing to pay. The state only provides enough funding to school districts to offer half-day kindergarten.

In Tigard and Tualatin, 165 families have paid $2,950 this year for their sons or daughters to attend full-day kindergarten. The district has been advised to continue what it's doing with charging for full-day kindergarten through the end of the school year.

But unless Oregon legislators can come up with a solution, the district likely won't offer the program next school year, said district spokeswoman Susan Stark Haydon.

'(The district) is waiting it out,' she said.

But school districts are fighting back with a legal opinion of their own. The four school districts to be represented at Monday's committee hearing are expected to argue the definition of 'regular program' as stated in Oregon statutes.

The Oregon Department of Education is expected to ask legislators to approve a bill that allows school districts to continue tuition-based full-day kindergarten by clarifying the term 'regular program.'

State statutes note that school districts cannot charge for first- through 12th-grade regular school programs or for the regular kindergarten program.

Saxton said legal counsel for the school districts will argue that the 'regular program' as it pertains to kindergarten refers to the half-day kindergarten program as the state only provides enough funding for districts to provide a half-day program.

'The AG's opinion has construed that regular is whatever (a school district) offers. But we have a legal opinion from our lawyers that's contrary to the AG and legislative counsel's opinions,' said Saxton.

In Tigard-Tualatin, each elementary school in the district offers at least one tuition-based full-day kindergarten class. At Metzger, Tualatin and Byrom elementary schools, all the kindergarten classes are full day, and all are free to families.

The district does offer scholarships for children whose families cannot afford the tuition. This year 52 students received scholarships for full-day kindergarten.

'We'll continue doing what we're doing… but we probably won't have tuition-based kindergarten next year if the legislators don't do something,' Stark Haydon said.