Ontario leaders float plan to help local kids save for further education

Ontario City Councilor Ken Hart makes a point in a council meeting in 2021. (Enterprise file photo)

ONTARIO – A trio of community leaders is proposing that the city of Ontario put $100 apiece into a special savings account for 1,000 local kids to use for college or other post-high school education.

They pitched their idea to the Ontario City Council on Tuesday, urging councilors to use extra marijuana sales tax money to fund “Ontario Promise.” The council isn’t expected to take formal action until later in the month.

The idea was crafted by Council President Ken Hart, Mayor Riley Hill and Tom Greco, a local pastor and chair of the Ontario School Board.

“This would be a way for us to really invest in our kids and show folks we care about the next generation,” Hart said in an interview Monday. “We want to make Ontario more appealing.”

Under the proposal, the city would deposit money for every child in kindergarten and grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

The cash would go into what’s called a 529 plan -– a tax-exempt savings account set up specifically to provide for educational costs. The money could be withdrawn when a student graduates from high school to apply to costs of the next step of education.

Ontario Promise would “demonstrate that the citizens of Ontario are committed to make education a key reason to move to, live in and raise a family in Ontario,” according to a summary of the program prepared by the three leaders.

Other goals would be to “financially commit to the future educational aspirations of the next generation of Ontario residents” and to “inspire parents, grandparents and other family members to add to this investment.”

Hart and Greco said that they think many parents aren’t aware of such tax-free savings programs or they often start saving only when their children are already in high school.

“A lot of people don’t even know what a 529 plan is,” Greco said. “We’re trying to jump start this, to educate people.”

Hart said research shows that if families start setting aside money for future education, the chance children will go on to college or other venues is “substantially higher.”

The proposal asks the city to set aside $130,000 to launch Ontario Promise. Hart said he hoped the council would act to appropriate that money from the current city budget so the program is ready to make its first payment into accounts by December.

The idea originated from a book that Greco shared last year with Hart. The book describes efforts to revive cities and included a description of how a focus on education helped change other communities.

At the same time, Hart read about how New York City funds such a program.

Hart, Greco and Hill gathered for breakfast last October to mull the idea. Hart said it was clear the city was going to collect more marijuana tax money than it had budgeted.

They met with others in the coming weeks, tweaking their ideas as a result and formulating the Ontario Promise concept.

Under that plan, any child living within the Ontario School District boundary would be eligible – but wouldn’t have to attend the district schools. Students at private schools or being home schooled would qualify, the proposal said.

The plan notes that the city would fund just the first year of the program.

“It is the hope that future city councils will honor this commitment to future students and their families as long as marijuana tax receipt funds are available,” the proposal said.

Greco said the school district itself “may also support that in some way, maybe in later years, when students are in high school.”

The proposal also envisions that relatives, community groups and businesses would join in helping fund more deposits.

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