Stafford School Board Considers Withdrawal from State’s Preschool Grant Program

By DAVID BIGGY | Feb 27, 2019

When a grant opportunity became available last year, the Stafford Township School District administration took quick action to take advantage of it.

No doubt, the New Jersey Department of Education’s Preschool Education Expansion Aid program seemed like a great way to eliminate the cost of tuition for families which chose to send their children to Oxycocus School. But it may not have been such a great idea, after all.

“We saw a grant and pursued it as a district,” said Superintendent George Chidiac during the Stafford Township Board of Education meeting on Feb. 21, at which the board was scheduled to vote on a plan to withdraw from the PEEA grant program and go back to its previously standard tuition-based preschool program. “Who wouldn’t want to have preschool free for our students?”

However, as the school year has rolled along, the administration discovered some requirements to expand the preschool program weren’t permitted for inclusion under the state’s terms for the grant, resulting in additional costs to the district – money which would have to be redirected from other parts of the budget to cover the shortfall.

“We were trying to do something good for our families by pursuing the grant, and we found out it wasn’t as good as we needed it to be,” Chidiac said in an interview on Feb. 22. “So our options are to pursue the grant and find a way to cover the extra costs in our budget, or not pursue the grant and go back tuition-based funding like it was before we received the grant.”

As reported by Chidiac and Business Administrator Lourdes LaGuardia during the meeting, despite the $1,469,263 received for the grant, expanding its preschool program to include 117 students within nine classrooms meant the district had to hire several special-area teachers in addition to more classroom aides, increase the transportation offerings and other specific services to meet the needs for those students.

“As we started preparing for the upcoming budget season, we started looking at the documents we had to submit and realized that 30 percent of our program costs were not covered by the grant,” Chidiac said at the meeting. “What we found out later was the three special-area teachers couldn’t be covered by the grant, only preschool teachers. The state has one formula of $12,500 per student and that’s it. However, the state doesn’t factor in additional costs that we incurred.”

Some of the reasons the grant’s formula doesn’t work for Stafford has to do with the district’s unique setup of housing preschoolers in only one building, Chidiac said. When transporting more students to one particular building, the district needed additional bus drivers and aides. By increasing the number of classrooms – which the district had to do according to grant guidelines, since it was limited to 15 students per classroom as opposed to the previous 20-per-classroom maximum the district had in place prior to this year – more teachers, aides and services were a necessity.

In other districts which received grants, preschoolers are able to board buses with first- and sixth-graders, utilize shared services from teachers and aides within buildings and the grant’s funding goes a long way, Chidiac said. Because Stafford’s situation is unique, the grant funding doesn’t stretch as well to cover the costs.

With about 40 parents attending last Thursday’s meeting – some of whom were concerned their children were going to become victims of ditching the grant program and pleaded through tears to stick with it – LaGuardia explained that because of the timing for filing the grant application in relation to the budgeting process, which occurs in the spring and is finalized in May, there was no way to project this year’s additional costs into the budget devised last year.

According to LaGuardia, the shortfall amounts to roughly $630,000, and she has been forced to redirect funds from other parts of the budget to cover the cost. Should the district apply for the grant again this year – which must be completed by March 5 – the projected shortfall will amount to some $773,000, LaGuardia said.

Given the fact the state caps budget increases at 2 percent of the previous year’s budget and teacher salaries and benefits will increase following last year’s contract agreement with the Stafford Teachers Education Association, there is very little wiggle room in the budget. Attempting to cover the preschool costs which don’t fall under the grant umbrella most likely will result in cuts to other K-6 programs in the district, she said.

One parent addressing the board asked if there were a way to maneuver some preschool classrooms to other buildings as a “creative” measure to get around the extra costs associated with the preschool program. Preschool Director Bill Wilkinson explained that to do so those other buildings would have to undergo bathroom renovations to meet state-mandated requirements for those students.

Personnel Director Barbara D’Apuzzo added that the administration has tried to devise several varying formulas in an effort to keep things as they are and reduce the extra costs involved, and so far “we haven’t found a way to make it work.”

“It’s a one-size-fits-all grant and that doesn’t really fit for our district,” she said. “We can’t just move classes. There’s more to it than that.”

Another factor the administration and school board has to figure into the equation is the projected drop in state aid. For this year, Stafford lost about $182,000 in funding, and next year the loss will be in the range of $255,000, Chidiac said. State aid figures are not likely to be released by the state until later in March, which complicates the matter a bit more, since there’s no concrete way to project the financial impact to the district at the moment.

“We’re trying to do the right thing for everybody,” Chidiac said the day after the meeting. “We know parents are concerned about having to pay for the tuition, but the board has to do what is best for the district. If there’s a way to keep the grant program, it definitely will make some people happy. But then we have to find a way to absorb the extra costs involved and that could mean cutting programs in other areas of the district.”

Ultimately, the agenda item to withdraw from the PEEA grant program was tabled for further discussion in closed session, and a special board meeting to decide on the preschool plans is set for Monday, March 4, at 7 p.m. inside the Stafford Room of the Oxycocus building.

As part of that item, the board has stipulated it intends to keep receiving its portion of Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) and Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) funding – approximately $224,400 given by the state, which is specifically used to help economically disadvantaged families, according to D’Apuzzo.

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