In St. Charles Unit District 303 there is such a thing as a free lunch, but there may not be free all-day kindergarten.
School board members are on the verge of charging a $350 fee on the lowest-income families who want to send their child to the district's all-day kindergarten program. The low-income students are identified by the federal guidelines for receiving a free lunch.
The full price for the program for families on the wealthier end of the income scale would be $2,025.
School board member Kathy Hewell believes that full price could and should be lower. The price is only that high because the district needs those wealthier families to supplement what the lower-income families don't pay, she said. And that's not fair, according to Hewell.
"If there is a program that has no charge, that's just not a good message to send," Hewell said. "Education isn't free. Even if we charge the low-income families 20 percent, that's not even comparable to baby-sitting. That's like 10 minutes worth of baby-sitting. And we'd be taking some of the burden off the families that are already paying."
Hewell wants the "free families" to pay at least $225 for the program. For that matter, $350 would be even better, she said.
District staff members aren't as concerned with the financial burdens the wealthier families carry so much as getting as many low-income students into all-day kindergarten as possible, Superintendent Don Schlomann said.
About 20 percent of the district's student population falls into the low-income category. Those students typically have a tougher time academically than their wealthier peers, Schlomann said.
"The ones who get the biggest benefit from this program are low-income," Schlomann said. "Oftentimes both parents are out of the home, working. They aren't getting the same experience at home as other students. Our principals believe very strongly in the impact of the all-day kindergarten program on these students."
School board members Steven Spurling and Judith McConnell indicated they support Hewell's view that the unbalanced cost structure unfairly penalizes the wealthier families in the district. But it's unclear where the majority of the board stands.
Board member Jim Gaffney said he will oppose any cost increase in the program for low-income families.
"If we're talking about the low-income category, $635 or $250 won't make a difference," Gaffney said. "They couldn't afford $5. There are parents in this district who can't afford to buy their kids shoes. That's the kid you're saying can't come to this school? You're absolutely crazy. I'm not buying it for one dang minute. Every person who pays his real estate taxes in this district has the right to come to this program."
The full school board must still vote on the proposed all-day kindergarten fee change.