CLARK, NJ – Talk of the possible termination of Clark’s tuition-based preschool program on social media brought concerned parents to the Clark Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening.  Superintendent Ed Grande, along with Board President Jill Curran and other board members, spoke to the public at length about why the preschool’s tuition-based program was at this cross-roads.

Ultimately 6 board members voted yes to agenda item 19, abolishing the program for the 2018-2019 school year.  “[I am] a stanch supporter of the early childhood program, so I vote no on 19,” said Board Member Lorraine Aklonis.  Henry Varriano also voted against this item.  (Christine Guerriero abstained as the Garwood representative.)

“This program is very close to my heart.  I was really in the forefront of starting full day kindergarten and the preschool program,” said Curran.  “This was a very, very difficult decision for me as a board member.”

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Grande explained the reasons for this decision during his report of the superintendent.  “Unfortunately, our enrollment numbers are not where we need them to be in order for it to make good sense for us to continue with this offering.  Please trust that this decision has not been made rashly.  The program, having been in existence in Clark since 2009, has been closely monitored over its eight plus years.”

“It has been operating at a loss and unlike some other local districts that are providing similar programs, we do not receive additional state aid to supplement our regular education preschool program.” 

“We are one of the lowest [districts] as far as state aid,” said board member Thomas Lewis.  “The state aid formula just doesn’t give us the money we need for education as a whole.”

Board member Laura Caliguire explained that by state law, Clark is not required to provide a preschool program.  “When we started to do this, we weren’t looking to make a profit.  We were just looking to offer a service and break even,” said Caliguire.  She went on to explain that because the program is losing money, cuts are being made in other areas that are required by law,  indicating the burden the program is putting on the district.  

“We can’t offer a service that is costing us more money to offer it,” said Caliguire.  “If we were breaking even I think all of us would have been willing to stay on board with it and continue it.” Caliguire said that they also had to take into consideration that the tax payers are taking up the burden of the cost. 

When asked by resident Sandy Kaminski if they considered raising the tuition, board member Robert Smorol said that the loss is significant.  “We are not short in the program by a little bit.  We are short by a lot,” said Smorol.  “And in order to get to a break even point … the tuition would grow exponentially.  We are not talking about a small tuition increase. “

Resident Felecia Hrdina Brown, whose daughter is in the preschool program had nothing but praise for the teachers and curriculum.  “The program has been amazing.  It has really been preparing her for kindergarten.”

Another resident said, “I hear you say that this program is operating at a loss.  Well the kids haven’t been operating at a loss. They’ve gained so many skills.”  She went on to say that she is concerned that this could impact PAARC scores further down the road.

“I am very aware of the benefits of preschool.  I am very aware of the need,” said Caliguire.  “Its not that we are taking this education away from the children.  They’ll have to find another preschool that fits their needs and go in that direction.  So, I don’t think its going to affect the education in Clark.”

Resident Jessica Lopez-Otalvaro shared how the preschool’s integrated classroom program has benefited her son.  “Not all children qualify for different services however many parents in situations like mine … who simply needs the structure of an integrated classroom such as Miss Megan’s are being done an incredible disservice by the Clark Public School District by abolished this program,” said Lopez-Otalvaro.  “To abolish this program is to deny other parents of Clark the same opportunity myself and so many other parents have had over the past few years.”

“We will still have the special needs program for the preschool children which is very much needed here in this district,” said Curran.  “And those children will be integrated into classrooms as well.  So, they will be receiving a thorough and efficient education.”

Along with the program operating at a loss, Grande added that space in the district was another factor.  “Since our district is simultaneously experiencing space issues, the fact that these two classrooms will become available for other required programs was also a consideration during the decision-making process. We are in the process of evaluating our options for how to best use this gain in space, that comes to us at no cost thanks to the generosity of the mayor and town council.”

Grande said that he and preschool director Lori Kowalski will hold a meeting with parents of currently enrolled 3-year-old students next Tuesday, December 12 at 6 p.m. in room 12 of the preschool.  “[We will have] a face to face to answer any questions they may have and to share information on other local regular education preschool programs,” said Grande.

“This was not a decision that we made lightly.  The board discussed this for months on end and for long hours,” said Curran.  “Please know that we are doing what we think is best for the district at this time.”

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