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Students in 4-year-old kindergarten at Taylor Prairie Elementary School in Cottage Grove stand bundled up and ready to head home after their half-day program on a recent Friday. Scenes like this will be happening in Madison schools in 2011-12, the madison School Board voted Monday night.

The Madison school board on Monday deadlocked 3-3 on approving a four-year-old kindergarten program for 2010-11, but voted 5-1 to implement it for the following school year.

The six board members present were obviously torn as they solemnly asked questions and shared opinions for an hour, then cast their votes for a program the board supports, but which could mean a property tax increase for Madison homeowners. The district's budget is reeling from a 15 percent drop in state funding for the current school year and in 2010-11.

"I'm going to say it's the hardest decision I've made on the board," said board member Marj Passman, who along with board members Beth Moss and Ed Hughes voted to implement four-year-old kindergarten in 2010. "To me this is extremely difficult. We have to have 4K. I want it. The question is when."

But board president Arlene Silveira argued the district's finances were too unclear to implement four-year-old kindergarten — estimated to serve 1,573 students with a free, half-day educational program — this fall.

"I'm very supportive of four-year-old kindergarten," she said. "It's the financing that gives me the most unrest."

Silveira voted against implementation in the fall, as did Lucy Mathiak and Maya Cole. Board member Johnny Winston, Jr. was absent.

On a second vote the board voted 5-1 to approve 4K for 2011-12. Hughes voted against starting the program in 2011-12, saying it should begin as soon as possible.

The first year of 4K in 2010-11 would have cost $12.2 million, said Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services. About $4.5 million of that would have been covered by the district's early childhood education budget and another $4.5 million would be borrowed. Under revenue limits, the district also could levy $3.5 million in local property taxes. That could mean as much as a $40 increase in property taxes for the owner of a $250,000 home, Kass said.

It's unclear what the cost would be for the district to start 4K in 2011-12.

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The board also voted 5-1, with Mathiak voting against, to abide by state requirements if it seeks a share of federal "Race to the Top" stimulus funds Wisconsin may receive.

The state plans to ask for $254 million from the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competition among states. State applications are due in Washington on January 19.

If Wisconsin wins a Race to the Top grant, which is not guaranteed, Madison schools stand to receive up to $8 million. To receive about half that amount, the district would have meet state mandates to boost early childhood education, which could include implementing 4K; help ninth-graders make an easier transition into high school to cut dropout rates; close the achievement gap between white students and students of color; and stress science, technology, engineering and math.

Superintendent Dan Nerad, who supported starting 4K this year, said during the meeting that enough framework was in place to do that.

"We're going to face the same dynamics on implementation whether it's this fall or next fall," he said.

In the first year a district starts 4-year-old kindergarten, only one-third of the enrolled students are counted by the state for funding purposes. In the second year, two-thirds are counted, and in the third year, all the students are counted. At that point, having a 4-year-old kindergarten program would have a positive effect on Madison School District finances, Kass said.

Seventy percent of Wisconsin school districts already have four-year-old kindergarten, touted by supporters as a way to give all students, regardless of income, a preschool experience that better prepares them for success in elementary school and beyond.

"I know our finances are not going to be getting any better next year," said Moss. "I don't know if you can pull another rabbit out of the hat" to improve the financial situation.

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