Stafford School Board Opts to Go Back to Tuition-Based Preschool for 2019-20

Mar 06, 2019

During its Feb. 21 meeting, the Stafford Township Board of Education was met with concern and opposition regarding its plan to withdraw from the New Jersey Department of Education’s Preschool Education Expansion Aid program and return exclusively to its tuition-based preschool model for the 2019-20 school year.

On Monday, after 10 days of deliberation, additional number-crunching and entertaining other ways to somehow reapply for the grant funding and make it all work without spending too much in overage costs, the board ultimately voted to pursue its original course.

“We want to make sure we’re making the right decisions for the district, so that we’re positioned to be financially successful,” said board President Walter Jauch following the special meeting. “We wanted to avoid any shortfalls going forward.”

As outlined by Superintendent George Chidiac and Business Administrator Lourdes LaGuardia during the previous meeting, the administration discovered some things required to expand the preschool program weren’t permitted for inclusion under the state’s terms for the $1.469-million grant, resulting in additional costs to the district – money that had to be redirected from other parts of the budget to cover the shortfall.

Jauch reiterated those details on Monday, citing an approximate shortfall of some $1.1 million if the district were to again pursue the grant funding from the state, which more or less has devised a cookie-cutter formula when doling out such grants. During the last meeting, Chidiac reported that the state grant equated to about $12,500 per student. However, additional teacher, aide, transportation and service costs drove the average per student significantly higher, and such costs were largely related to the unique structure of the Stafford district.

Ultimately, the board unanimously decided on Monday that the extra cost was too much to bear. On Tuesday, March 12, the district will hold a meeting at the Stafford Township Arts Center, starting at 6 p.m., for parents interested in enrolling their children into the preschool program at the Oxycocus School.

“Before I vote, I want to express to the public how taxing this has been on the board and the administration,” said board member Patricia Formica. “We have not come to this decision lightly. We’ve crunched the numbers. We’ve done everything possible. We heard you last week and tabled it so we had extra time to go over it, but with that said, my vote is yes.”

Going forward, the district intends to communicate further with the state Department of Education about the pitfalls it discovered in an effort to possibly re-tailor the grant program so other districts aren’t blindsided by the potential shortfalls.

“We’ve already talked to the county superintendent and communicated to the state that funding for the grant didn’t cover all our expenses,” Jauch said.

Personnel Director Barbara D’Apuzzo – who on Monday was appointed by the board to be acting superintendent after it granted emergency family leave to Chidiac until April 9 – said she and Oxycocus Director Bill Wilkinson have made the county superintendent and business administrator fully aware of Stafford’s issues surrounding the grant.

“The county superintendent said he would use the data we gave him to inform other districts about some of the hidden costs not covered by the grant,” D’Apuzzo said. “It’s a great idea. The grant program is great in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work as well as it probably was intended because every district is different.”

— David Biggy

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