With chances that Carroll County public schools could be exempted from mandated all-day kindergarten likely dashed for at least a year, county leaders are regrouping, seeking like-minded allies in other counties and hoping that state budget uncertainties might, in the short term, work to their advantage.
With funding for last year's landmark Thornton Commission education legislation tied to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s struggle to expand gambling in Maryland, county school officials hope they might be relieved of the commission's obligation to enroll every kindergartner in Maryland in a full-day program by the 2007-2008 school year.
If not, Carroll legislators will return next year with a new strategy that likely will include organizing a coalition of counties that oppose the kindergarten requirement and a more broadly written bill that they hope would do better than the Carroll-specific legislation that failed in committee late last month.
But even as the Carroll delegation regroups and works to build support among lawmakers for next year, county school officials are proceeding - albeit, slowly and haltingly - to phase in full-day programs at the county's 21 elementary schools over the next four years.
"We have been studying this issue and working on an implementation plan for months," said Stephen Guthrie, Carroll's assistant superintendent of administration. "We are not waiting for the outcome of legislation on this. The assumption that we are working on is that this is something we are going to have to do and soon."
Unconvinced that they should be required to pay for something that even the staunchest advocates say is not necessary for every child, Carroll school board members had set their hopes on legislation that would have exempted them from the all-day kindergarten requirement.
But the bill received an unfavorable report from the House Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 27, effectively killing its prospects in this year's General Assembly session.
"That one is doomed," said Carroll school board President Susan Holt. "But it appears there may be a chance for things to go statewide. We'll come back at it next year because people are beginning to realize this isn't just an impact to Carroll County. When the delegation submitted the bill and people started hearing about it, other counties wanted to sign on."
Carroll officials say they support the idea of all-day kindergarten and agree that some children need the extra schooling full-day programs provide to better prepare them for first grade.
But they object to the state requiring that all school systems provide the program for all children without providing enough money to pay for the additional classroom space, teachers and supplies that the expanded program would need.
"I'm not arguing against the merits of all-day kindergarten," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, who spent four years on Carroll's school board before winning her campaign for the newly created legislative seat in South Carroll. "But I think we need to make it a local choice."
Krebs said she was not surprised that the kindergarten bill was grounded in committee, characterizing this attempt as a "get-it-out-there year."
She said many of the committee members she spoke with were interested in a bill that would give all counties the option to not impose full-day kindergarten on all schools and all children. But she said most did not want to pass a bill that would address only one county.
Carroll school administrators estimate that they would need 40 new classrooms if the nearly 2,000 half-day kindergartners begin staying all day. They would need to nearly double the number of teachers and kindergarten assistants on staff or let kindergarten class rosters balloon well beyond the 20 pupils to which county school officials prefer to limit them.
They would need to redraw school bus routes to make room for extra children who would be riding to school in the morning and home in the afternoon. They would have to restructure lunch shifts and ensure that cafeteria tables and chairs are sized appropriately for kindergartners who would be staying for lunch for the first time.
And they would need to find a way to build planning time into the schedule for kindergarten teachers who no longer would have time between morning and afternoon shifts to write lessons, prepare materials and ready their rooms for the next batch of activities.
"There are a lot of things to think about," Guthrie, the assistant superintendent, said.
But even moving forward with phase-in plans is difficult, school officials said, given the uncertainties surrounding this year's state budget and the governor's warning that the Thornton legislation is not affordable if his slots proposal fails.
"Who knows what's going to happen with funding sources?" asked Harry Fogle, Carroll's director of elementary and special education. "A lot of the all-day kindergarten money is coming through Thornton Commission money and with the state's budget problems, we're not sure what will happen. The state's kindergarten plan may stay in place, and it may change based on the funding reality."
State education officials declined to say last week whether they would support exempting counties from full-day kindergarten under any circumstance or scaling back plans for an educational initiative in which state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick firmly believes.
"Evidence from a variety of reports and research shows that all-day kindergarten is worthwhile for children of all ethnic and economic backgrounds," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. "It's just a good thing. There isn't any evidence to the contrary."
Sun staff writer Childs Walker contributed to this article.