BOE Discusses Possible Grant To Provide Tuition-Free Pre-K For 4-Year-Olds

Tuesday night’s Board Of Education meeting made public the district’s consideration of providing tuition-free prekindergarten to three- and four-year-olds who reside in the borough through a state grant, presumably through the New Jersey Department Of Education (NJDOE). The name of the grant was not mentioned.

School Superintendent Pedro Garrido addressed the school board and the three residents in attendance by relaying that the Roselle Park School District (RPSD) received notification on August 3rd that it qualified for an early childhood education grant. He stated, “Now, as soon as we received that [notification] we understood that this would be beneficial for the district as it’s additional aid that we will be receiving as well as for the community and for the parents because they will have a free preschool education for the students. We have been exploring since then.”

Mr. Garrido remarked that there was a training workshop the previous week where more information was provided. The deadline to apply for the grant is less than three weeks away on Monday, September 10th.

“The reason why the district right now is hesitant and probably the only reason [is] space.  As you know, we are running out of space for our students. The state is projecting . . . 57 four-year-olds and 57 three-year-olds. That would be an addition of 114 students.”

The school superintendent went on to explain that the district is mandated to run a preschool special education program and space is allocated for that. He commented that there is some space for tuition-based general preschool but that space would not accommodate the projected enrollment. He said, “One of the options that the state allows the district is to partner with private preschools in the area so I immediately reached out to the Community Preschool which is the United Methodist Church on Chestnut Street. I spoke to the director there and I just wanted to give them the information that this is something . . . possible. The director did get back to me that the Community Preschool is definitely interested.”

The Community Preschool director is Sonya Leingang, wife of BOE member Matthew Leingang. In reaching out for a comment, Mrs. Leingang responded, “ I don’t have much to say besides that you are right we are discussing [it].”

As this matter progresses it is not known if Mr. Leingang will need to recuse himself from a legal conflict of interest.

One of the requirements of the grant, according to Mr. Garrido, is that the district would be able to start the prekindergarten program on January 2, 2019, and to be able to provide a program for all students that apply.

“Now, although the state is projecting 57 four-year-olds and 57 three-year-olds I’m a little leery about that because we average about 140 students in each grade level,” said Mr. Garrido, “So that means that we may get more than 57. We must guarantee that we will provide space for every student that comes into the district so we have to be very careful. That’s why I’m using the word ‘exploring’ very carefully.”

The school superintendent conveyed, “My plan, again, is to meet with the Community Preschool within the next few days. I’m going to reach out tomorrow to them . . . [and] make sure that they can guarantee us the space. Right now I believe they might have space for possibly 15 to 20 students. That’s the initial information that I received. We have space probably here for between 30 to 40 students. That is probably right around the number that the state is projecting.”

Mr. Garrido concluded his report by stating, “We do have a little time, not too much, but we do have a little time to continue to explore and I will have more information if it is something that we’re seriously [looking] into. I will be sending information out to the parents to let them know that this is something that we are exploring. Certainly, the board will be advised of any update and then in a little bit, the public will be as well. We have some work to do before we can make this a reality or not. We’re not sure right now because of space.”

Opening up the discussion to the school board, Sundjata Sekou asked if the program could be limited to four-year-olds only and asked if the district explore a lottery system.

Mr. Garrido responded that right now there is no way that the district can provide for both age groups and that it will pursue the program for four-year-olds only. He stressed, “There is no way – no matter how many private preschools are in the area – that we can provide space for 114, [possibly] more than that.”

The school superintendent reiterated that the grant required that the district must provide for every Roselle Park resident who is four-years-old that applies to the program.

Troy Gerten asked what happens if the grant is not available the following year, adding the concern with development in Roselle Park, “We’re going to potentially have additional families moving into Roselle Park, whether they’re school age or not. Those numbers are based on state estimates today – they’re not matching our enrollment number so there’s an already understatement of those numbers and how do we account for that in two, three, four years from now when there’s an additional group of families in Roselle Park, potentially, and how do we address it because our buildings aren’t getting any larger as we sit here today?”

Mr. Garrido replied that when the prekindergarten program moved out of the John Adase Early Childhood Center and back into the district’s elementary school, that it was a temporary fix because the district is having issues with space. Mr. Garrido added, “I think this is something that was rushed. This was something that was based on the governor’s promises for universal preschool . . . Your question about the current development and construction around the community and the town, that’s something that we’re going to have to address as a board as well and as an administration in the district . . . I truly believe that this universal pre-k is not going to go away. I think that the district and the taxpayers are eventually going to also be impacted by this. I’ve seen it before where promises are made, the money dries up, and then what happens? It becomes something that it goes to the taxpayers. So we really need to be very careful what we do.”

Mr. Gerten then remarked that not having the free pre-kindergarten program might become a competitive disadvantage for the borough if surrounding comparable school districts offer it. He said, “I think we do need to have those discussions because for us, as we sit here on the board today, and say we can’t necessarily put them in our schools, it’ll work people’s property values when the towns around us are able to meet those needs.”

He also asked who will be responsible for classroom instruction, personnel, and the curriculum. The school superintendent replied that the grant requires that the district either need to certify one of its current teaching staff or hire what is called a ‘master teacher’. This master teacher would have special training that the state has requires and will be responsible to oversee the program throughout the district, including the Community Preschool. It would be the responsibility of the private preschool to hire a certified preschool teacher.

Mr. Gerten then asked,”The private entity has to have that same structure for their teachers and/or their administrators?”

Mr. Garrido answered, “For their teachers they do. I’m not sure about their administration. I have to look into that. I know they would fall under our administrative umbrella . . . There’s a lot that we need to look at. It’s a very short amount of time.”

The school superintendent stated that he will talk to other districts that qualified for this grant as well to see how they address their space issue. He remarked that Kenilworth qualified but they have the space. He relayed,  “Some of our buildings are already overcrowded as it is in terms of the population we have. They are quite overcrowded and we need to really discuss our future and the plans here in our district and our schools. We want to continue to provide quality education.”

When Mr. Gerten asked if the district could accept the grant and then defer it for a year – which has been done with other grants – Mr. Garrido stated that he did not think it would be possible, “To be able to even apply we have to have these things in place already.”

Board member Joseph Signorello II commented, “I think that this is going to be, maybe, a good marriage with the school and the community. We might have to do some upgrades [to comply with ADA standards] . . . Do we have to look at the facility and match it to the school’s [ADA and other requirements.]?”

Mr. Garrido stated that the Community Preschool would have to comply. With that, Mr. Signorello stated that the program would be restricted to the first floor since the building on the corner of East Grant venue and Chestnut Street does not have ADA compliance for its second floor.

The discussion drew to a close with the understanding that talks would continue and that the school superintendent would keep the school board up-to-date. It is expected that the matter will be brought up again with a formal decision at the September 4th BOE meeting.

Many questions remain unanswered with less than 20 days left to apply. Such questions include:

  • Will the prekindergarten program be a half-day or a full-day program?
  • Will teachers and aides at the Community Preschool become employees of the district?
  • What will happen to children who are not from Roselle Park who currently pay to attend the Community Preschool?
  • How will the contract with the Roselle Park Education Association (RPEA) impact staff at the private school that will be providing a public school education?
  • What if enrollment jumps the next year and the facilities can no longer address the increase in student population?
  • Why has “A Child’s Experience”, which is located at the John Adase Early Childhood Center, not been considered as a partner for the grant program?

These are just a few of the many questions that the district, the school board, and the administration will need to address for the benefit of the public at the first September meeting. That meeting is set to take place at 7 p.m. in the Roselle Park Middle School located at 57 West Grant Avenue.