Editor's note: This article was updated Aug. 8 to clarify the nature of the lawsuit. The goal of the lawsuit is to eliminate kindergarten fees in Idaho, not to require districts to start offering free full-day kindergarten.

MERIDIAN — A pending lawsuit could require the West Ada School District to eliminate tuition for its all-day kindergarten program, providing it for free. Even if that did happen, the district wouldn’t have enough space to offer the program for all the families that need it.

Some West Ada schools hold lotteries because of the high demand for full-day kindergarten, and a third of the district’s elementary schools don’t have room for full-day programs, district spokesman Eric Exline said. Starting this year, Hillsdale Elementary in south Meridian is going to stop offering full-day kindergarten because it needs that space for growth in other grades — leaving some parents scrambling to find another option.

“We just don’t have the space,” Exline said.

The state of Idaho doesn’t require schools to offer kindergarten, but most school districts offer it, according to Kristin Rodine, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education. West Ada — the largest school district in Idaho — and the Boise Independent School District, among others, provide only half-day kindergarten for free. Full-day kindergarten costs $300 per month in West Ada and $50 to $250 in Boise on a sliding-scale fee.

Two West Ada parents last month sued the school district, saying the failure to offer its full-day kindergarten program for free violates the Idaho Constitution and disadvantages low-income families. Retired Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, who is representing the parents, has filed similar cases in the past in an effort to make free, all-day kindergarten required statewide. The lawsuit seeks to eliminate tuition fees associated with kindergarten in Idaho. Huntley said no schools in Idaho charge tuition for half-day programs, so this lawsuit is specifically targeting districts that offer full-day programs with a fee for the second half of the day.

The district responded to the complaint Tuesday, denying the allegations in the complaint.

Huntley said he and West Ada’s counsel will work out a case management plan with the court, which will include deadlines and sending out requests for information required in the case. A hearing could be held in the first six to nine months if a motion is made, like a motion to dismiss. If a motion isn’t made or the motion is denied, a trial date would likely be set about a year from now.

Even if the lawsuit is successful, West Ada still wouldn’t have the space to provide full-day programs for all its students.

FUNDING FOR FULL DAY

Huntley maintains that the Idaho Legislature is underfunding its schools by some $700 million a year, and that’s pushing school districts to impose fees such as kindergarten tuition to help fill the gap.

The Legislature earlier this year, at the urging of Gov. Brad Little, increased early education literacy funds, which several school districts, including Nampa, Caldwell and Vallivue, used to provide free, full-day kindergarten. West Ada used the literacy funds to improve intervention times for around 30% of kindergartners who are struggling to keep up.

“We want to target the kids who are behind,” Exline said.

The Boise School District used the funding to supplement reading support for students with low test scores. A portion of the funds are going toward scholarships for kindergarten tuition.

There is a noticeable difference between students coming out of half-day programs and full-day programs, said Kacey Schneidt, Siena Elementary School principal. The full-day program accelerates a student’s learning and puts them on the right track to meet the benchmark goals at the end of first grade, she said.

Meridian parent Tonya Haustveit has had two children go through West Ada’s full-day kindergarten program, with her third enrolled in Siena’s starting Aug. 26.

“Personally, for us, I think full day is more effective at such a young age,” she said.

The three-and-a-half hours in a half-day program doesn’t give teachers enough time to repeat concepts and prepare students for first grade, she said. The longer class time in full day, she added, helped her children grow socially.

While Haustveit can afford to pay the $300 monthly tuition that comes along with the program, she said a lot of parents can’t.

“I love full day, but I am lucky enough that I can afford to, and I’m in a school that offers it,” she said.

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Because all students funnel into the same first grade classes, regardless of whether they were in full- or half-day programs, it can create a discrepancy in classrooms. That sometimes means students who are advanced or far behind get ignored, Haustveit said.

Providing funding for full-day kindergarten in West Ada and across the state, she said, “would be a great benefit for Idaho and for the kids.”

“It is one more resource that Idaho should be investing in to help their kids get an education,” she said.

Brittany Mitko’s daughter was enrolled in full-day kindergarten program at Siena last year. While she believes offering free full-day programs is important and sees the benefits of the program in her daughter, she said dealing with overcrowding in West Ada should be more of a priority.

To build or expand schools, districts must get voter approval for a bond or plant facilities levy. West Ada and other local districts periodically have to come before voters with such requests to keep up with the growing population. The West Ada School District has been advocating for the state to cover half of the cost of school districts’ bonds.

If that were to happen, Exline said “we could use it to add classrooms to existing schools or simply increase our inventory of schools, changing attendance areas so you could have full-day kindergarten everywhere.”

West Ada school board Chairman Ed Klopfenstein told the Meridian Press in July, “We’re very concerned that if taxpayers don’t see a lessening of that burden, we’re going to start getting bonds that don’t pass — and that’s going to be very detrimental to the kids.”

HILLSDALE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Of the 2,500 kindergartners enrolled in West Ada, 550, or 22%, are in full-day programs.

In order to enroll every kindergartner in a full-day program, the district would need another 50 classrooms, Exline said, plus funding for more staff and supplies.

“That would be if everyone wants it and... not everyone does,” Exline said.

Hillsdale Elementary opened in 2016 with 534 students — many of which came from Mary McPherson and Siena Elementary schools to relieve overcrowding. The neighborhoods surrounding Hillsdale have grown significantly since then, and last year the school’s enrollment surpassed its capacity of 650 by about 160 students.

“We haven’t been able to return those students to their home schools, just due to the fact that we’ve been growing faster than we’ve been able to build schools,” Hillsdale Principal Khristie Bair said

In the past, Hillsdale has offered two full-day and three half-day programs. This year, the school couldn’t spare the classroom space, instead offering six half-day programs, Bair said. Even before closing the full-day classes, Bair said there was the demand for another full-day class.

Many of the parents planning on enrolling their child in one of the school’s 50 full-day spots settled for half-day, and some tried to enroll their children in other programs, Bair said.

Siena Elementary School is just northwest of Hillsdale. The school’s two full-day kindergarten classes have a waitlist of five students, all of whom are from Hillsdale, said Charlotte Lulloff, head secretary at Siena.

With the first phase of Discovery Park complete, Bair expressed concerns that even more students are on their way to the area. Growth and overcrowding in the south Meridian area, she said, will “continue to be a challenge.”

BOISE

The Boise School District offers full-day kindergarten at 15 of its 32 elementary schools, which is “definitely a response to parental demand,” district spokesman Dan Hollar said. Eleven of the 15 schools held lotteries for full-day kindergarten this year, he said.

Boise plans to continue growing its full-day kindergarten program based on the needs and demands of parents. This year the district is opening a full-day program at Adam’s Elementary School on a trial basis. The district is also working to expand its prekindergarten program.

Patty Bowen is the Meridian Press reporter. You can reach her at pbowen@idahopress.com or follow her on Twitter @pattybowenMP.

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