Stafford Votes Down Free Preschool Program

Photo by Kimberly Bosco

  STAFFORD – Although the Stafford School District previously jumped at the opportunity to apply for the state’s free preschool program grant, officials ultimately decided the costs outweighed the benefits.

  On March 4, the Stafford Board of Education unanimously decided to withdraw its application for the New Jersey Department of Education’s Preschool Education Expansion Aid (PEEA) for the 2019-2020 school year during a special meeting. The district will be returning to tuition-based preschool programming.

  At the Feb. 21 Board of Education meeting, officials noted that they were considering the idea of withdrawing from the grant after discovering that some requirements to expand the preschool program weren’t included in the funding, like transportation for example.

  Board President Walter Jauch said that the district was looking at a $1.1 million shortfall in additional costs to expand the program, which would have to be taken from the general fund. Jauch estimated a total cost of $2.3 million to go through with the grant.

  “If we have to start eroding at our core program for K through 6, it’s not going to matter that we have a good, free preschool,” said Jauch.

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  Superintendent George Chidiac and Business Administrator Lourdes LaGuardia explained what the PEEA grant included during the Feb. 21 meeting. Chidiac was not present during the March 4 special meeting. The Board approved last minute personnel changes after a closed session, stating that Mr. Chidiac will be taking “emergency retroactive leave” effective March 1 to April 9. While he is absent, Personnel Director Barbara D’Apuzzo will take on the role of acting superintendent.

  Chidiac and LaGuardia previously explained that Stafford would have received a $1,469,263 grant to expand its preschool program to include 117 students spread out between nine classrooms. The expansion would also require the hiring of special-area teachers, classroom aides, and increase the need for transportation.

  In terms of transportation, Jauch explained that this is a high-cost area, “a lot of the extra busses that we need, some of the busses are aging…they have to be pulled off the road and they have to be replaced with something else.”

  From the time that the district submitted their PEEA application in August 2018, they had 60 days to figure out how “to get it up and running.” These measures included postponing purchasing some new busses, postponed expanding makerspaces in schools, suspending professional development opportunities, suspending all spending opportunities outside of mandatory bills, and using reserve funds which are a one-time “injection,” said Jauch.

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  Board member Patricia Formica noted before the official vote that the process of deciding whether or not to go through with withdrawing the application was “taxing for the board…we have not come to this decision lightly.”

  The vote was unanimous to cancel the PEEA application in favor of a continued tuition-based preschool option.

  Concerned parents inquired about the cost of preschool tuition for the upcoming year, which Jauch said could not be calculated until state aid figures came in. This information will be available at the March 12 meeting on preschool registration.

  D’Apuzzo also assured parents that students already enrolled in the program will have priority when it comes to registration. For those economically disadvantaged students, the district has submitted a three-year Preschool Plan for Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) and Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) funding in the amount of $224,400. These funds will be used to assist those who wish to attend the preschool program but require some financial assistance, she added.

  As to the possibility of a PEEA free preschool program in Stafford’s future, board member Joe Mangino said “I think we as a group have identified some of the roadblocks as to why we can’t continue with this plan, so I think we are going to share with the state what these roadblocks are and these are things they need to look into…So yes, I think we can get this grant to work for all of us.”