The Elmbrook School Board Tuesday deferred action on whether to add 4-year-old kindergarten in order to learn how the state's next biennial budget will impact the district's revenues.
Superintendent Matt Gibson recommended the board wait for more financial information. But he urged the board to consider supporting 4K — whether next year or in future years — as a way to shore up resident enrollment and the revenue that brings.
The argument appeared to draw support from Board President Tom Gehl, who has strongly advocated that Elmbrook concentrate on sizing its schools and curriculum for students who are residents of the district — not those who live elsewhere and attend Elmbrook through the state's open enrollment program.
Gehl has voted against 4K in the past. But he said Tuesday that it will likely be needed in the long term, to shore up resident enrollment and its revenue to maintain a high-achieving district.
"Short term, do we need 4K? No," Gehl said. "Long term, I believe that we do."
Elmbrook's resident enrollment has declined by 508 students from the 2006-07 school year to the current year, Gibson said.
All projections show declining enrollment will continue in Brookfield and Elm Grove, which will continue to stress district finances. Elmbrook has projected a five-year deficit of more than $14 million.
Conversely, Gehl said Elmbrook's "biggest mistake" would be increasing the number of non-resident students the district accepts in order to keep all six elementary schools open and filled for maximum enrollment and revenue.
Gehl said he believed there is a "connection that we're no longer No. 1 (in college admission test scores) and the percentage of our non-resident enrollment.
"These aren't easy or comfortable things to say," he added.
The School Board recently voted to allow up to 12 percent of its enrollment from outside of the district.
Board members Meg Wartman and Jean Lambert expressed little support for adding 4K. Wartman said the district needs to tackle larger issues such as whether it should close schools, before adding another grade level curriculum.
Lambert said she believes money would be better spent bolstering outcomes at the higher grades in preparation for post-graduation than at the elementary school level.
Eileen Depka, assistant superintendent for educational services, said Elmbrook could close two schools and still have school space to add 4K.
Board members discussed whether Elmbrook's lack of 4K — 85 percent of districts statewide now have some kind of 4K offering — would cause home-buyers with preschool children to pass over Elmbrook.
Elm Grove resident Betsy Haushalter urged the board to add 4K to remain competitive.
"My kids attended 4K in Wauwatosa and they had a complete repeat here" in 5-year-old kindergarten the following year after moving into the Elmbrook district, Haushalter said.
"If you're going to compete, you're going to have to have 4-year-old kindergarten," she said.
Resident Pat Locante said adding 4K could add not only 4-year-old students but older siblings if families move to Elmbrook to take advantage of its 4K program.
"We all know that a Cadillac Escalade costs more than a GMC Jimmy," she said. "I moved to Elmbrook because I thought Elmbrook had the Cadillac."
Resident Kyle Prast said 4K was not a deal-breaker for those seeking to join Elmbrook. She pointed to nearly 200 households on the west and southwest side of the city who are petitioning to be able to detach from the Waukesha School District and join Elmbrook.
The Elmbrook School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the household's request but the Waukesha School District told Elmbrook it will reject the request, forcing the homeowners to appeal to the state.
Prast said the Waukesha School District has a 4K program, but parents are asking to move to Elmbrook, which does not.
"(4K) doesn't matter," Prast said. "What matters is Elmbrook's education."
Brookfield resident Nancy Kormanik opposed 4K, saying it was not mandatory and as a choice should be funded by parents, not taxpayers.
The board said it will consider 4K at its March 8 meeting if there is sufficient information on how the governor's 2011-13 biennial budget would impact Elmbrook's budgets.
Elmbrook administrators plan to present their 2011-12 district budget proposal at the April 6 School Board meeting.