Daily Astorian

Hermiston School District's least-prepared kindergarten students will get a head start next year with a pilot program for full-day kindergarten.

The district's original plan was to roll out full-day kindergarten with the rest of the state during the 2015-2016 school year, but on Monday the school board voted to transition a class or two at each building a year early.

Superintendent Fred Maiocco said if the district is going to increase spending in any area, implementing full-day kindergarten is his "number one priority" after the results of the first statewide kindergarten readiness assessment showed Hermiston five-year-olds performed in the bottom 20 in literacy and math out of 190 districts.

"We were shocked at the kindergarten readiness assessment numbers. ... We need to get in and perform triage," Maiocco said.

He said the pilot program will give some students a needed head start, while also allowing the district to work out the kinks with transportation and scheduling ahead of a full roll-out. Maiocco said it will also allow the district to snag a few more kindergarten teachers before the predicted statewide shortage in 2015.

However, the state currently only pays districts half price for its kindergarteners even if they are in school for a full day. Kindergarteners won't be counted as full-time students until 2015-2016, meaning the money for next year's pilot program has to come from somewhere else in the district's budget.

In order to pay for the extra teachers and classroom equipment, the school board authorized staff to use up to $100,000 of a $1.1 million reserve fund the district has been using to offset rising PERS costs.

The funding decision came after deputy superintendent Wade Smith estimated the district will fall about $75,000 short of being able to put a pilot program in each elementary school while also keeping the district's ending fund balance above 8 percent. Before the recession the district kept a balance of 14 percent but Smith said the board has whittled down its reserves in the last six years and shouldn't dip below 8 percent.

Board member Don Rankin was the lone dissenting vote on the issue. He said the PERS problem wasn't going away and the district would surely need every penny in the reserve fund soon.

"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul and eventually we won't have enough money to pay John," he said.

Board member David Smith said he was of a different mindset when he first heard the proposal, but after hearing how unprepared Hermiston kindergarteners are and how much of a difference the first three years of school can make, he supported taking some money from the PERS fund. It might not be the right decision from a purely business viewpoint, he said, but "this is for the kids."

Maiocco said he wanted input from teachers and the community about how to determine which kindergarteners will go a full day next year. He said his first inclination was to use the kindergarten readiness assessment to fill the full-day classes with the children farthest behind.

A task force headed by Smith, assistant superintendent Brynn Browning and Rocky Heights Elementary principal BJ Wilson will make recommendations on the structure of the pilot program by May 30.

Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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