SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – At a March 23 meeting, the South Plainfield Board of Education unanimously approved a tuition increase at Future Stars with the goal of helping to move the preschool program out of the red. Although higher than the current tuition, the approved rate increase is also significantly lower than initially proposed.

For the 2016-2017 school year, the cost for five, full-days at Future Stars will be $820/month ($8,200/year) while those who enroll their children in five half days will pay $420/month ($4,200/year); both the two- and three-day class option will no longer be offered. Currently, the cost of five, full days at Future Stars is $550/month ($5,500/year) with five, half-days coming in at $275/month ($2,750/year).

Future Stars is a tuition-based Enterprise (Fund 60) program meaning it cannot be funded by tax dollars and must be supported by monies raised through the program (i.e. tuition). Additionally, the program receives an annual flat state aid reimbursement of $52,000. District officials state that the program costs over $1 million/year to run, and, at the current tuition rate, is operating in the red with monies needed to subsidize the shortfall coming out of the district’s general operating fund (Fund 10).

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At a January meeting with Future Stars parents, district officials presented an estimated 18-percent tuition increase for September; passage of this increase would have raised the cost to $647/month ($6,470/year) for five, full days and $324/month ($3,240/year) for five, half days. It was at this time that the district also announced the two- and three-day class options would be eliminated.

Earlier this month, however, parents of current and incoming Future Stars were presented with two different proposed tuition rate increases, both significantly higher than what was suggested back in January. At its March 16 COW meeting, the board voted 7-1 in favor of increasing tuition to $1,250/month ($12,500/year) for the full day program and $625/month ($6,250/year) for half day. Then, registration forms sent out by the district’s special services department earlier this week incorrectly listed the tuition for the upcoming year at $1,080/month ($10,080/year) for full day and $504/month ($5,040/year) for half day.

Before last Wednesday’s meeting even got under way, the board broke for its first executive session of the night to discuss the error and whether to vote on the figure sent to parents ($10,080-full day/$5,040-half day) or the amount approved the prior week ($12,500-full day/$6,250-half day).

Returning to the public meeting with the $12,500/$6,250 figure off the table, the board had to vote on the incorrect, published amount ($10,080/$5,040) and was also asked by Interim Superintendent Dr. Johanna Ruberto to consider a leaser increase of $755/month ($7,550/year) for full day, $400/month ($4,000/year) for half day for the 2016-2017 school year. Doing so, said Ruberto, would then allow the district more room to introduce incremental increases over the coming years.

“You’ve got a good district here as long as you stay cohesive. Once you splinter it doesn't work,” said Ruberto.

Bill Seesselberg, the board’s vice president, and members Doug Chapman, Chere Glover and Sharon Miller voted in favor of the published tuition rate ($10,080/$5,040) while Board President Debbie Boyle and members Kim Anesh and Carol Byrne voted ‘no’ in support of Ruberto’s recommendation. Member John Farinella was absent and member Steven Bohn had not yet returned to the meeting following executive session and, as a result, the increase to $10,080/$5,040 passed.  

According to district officials, in order for the program to be sustainable, tuition will need to continually rise over the subsequent years and, based on current costs, will need to increase to $15,000/year in the coming years for the full-day program to run at no loss to the district. 

Future Stars, said Seesselberg, has been in a very unique situation over the past couple of years with flat tuition, combined with extraordinarily high expenses, that have ‘bumped the general operating costs of Future Stars very quickly more than the board anticipated.’ Failure to raise the preschool program’s tuition, he said, could ultimately have an adverse affect on the rest of the district.

“The more money that comes out of the general operating fund to subsidize the negative in Future Stars [will then have to] come out of other programs … which then may have to be eliminated or cut because the money isn’t in Fund 10 because it is subsidizing an Enterprise fund …” Seesselberg said. “We need to change the ratio between the two and, unfortunately, the one way to do that is to raise tuition.”

Chapman added, “It is a very difficult decision but I support it … I do not think we can continue to strain the overall budget to fund an Enterprise program.”

While she understands the increase is necessary, Anesh stated that, in her opinion, raising tuition that significantly over the course of one year wouldn't be ‘beneficial to anyone.’

“As much as I understand that it is the responsibility of the district to try and make up the gap as best as it can, I also think it is responsibility of the district to be considerate of the burden being put on Future Stars parents by almost doubling tuition in one year,” said Anesh.

While she, too, understands an increase is necessary, Boyle feels a gradual one would be a better option for the community. “We cannot operate in the red and we know we have to make a change but we also cannot play catch up,” she said. “You have to do raise the tuition but you need to do it over the next couple of years and in smaller amounts.”

With a possible 96-percent tuition increase on the horizon for the full day program – based solely on the circulated tuition amounts – parents of students currently enrolled in Future Stars took to the preschool’s private Facebook page to voice their concerns. Many then attended Future Stars’ March 22 open house and, after being told that the cost would actually be even higher took their frustration to South Plainfield’s social media pages, urging other parents to attend last Wednesday’s BOE meeting and speak out.

At the start of the March 23 meeting, approximately 40 people, including parents and Future Stars teachers and aides, were in attendance. Not one parent spoke in support of the increase with most stating that while they love the program and its teachers, the increased rated would result in them no longer being able to afford to send their child there.

“These children are your future and now I have to tell them that they can no longer go to their favorite place each day… that they cannot go to school next year because they have two hardworking parents who cannot afford the high increase,” Nicole Milano, who had her twin boys with her at the meeting, told the board. “These aren’t the only children who are going to be denied an education. Be considerate. These are your ‘future stars.’”

Another mom, whose son completed the preschool program and whose daughter is currently enrolled, said, “I trust these teachers, I love these teachers. They are more than just teachers they are part of our family… I am up here asking the people on the board who voted for the increase to reconsider,” she said, adding, “Think about our children, our future, and all these parents who will no longer be able to afford to send their children to school. We need and want this program for our children … Please look inside your hearts and reconsider your position, I would greatly appreciate it. My child would greatly appreciate it because she would love to finish her time in Future Stars with her family …”

Others who spoke expressed anger over the timing of the announced increase, specifically since other area preschools began the registration process for September 2016 weeks ago and, as a result, classes are full.

“You have basically cut them off from every program out there,” said Joanne Semon, who has 30-plus years in education and is involved with the school because her grandson attends. “Most of them are already filled up. There are waitlists … Where are they going to go? People can’t afford this.”

Semon added that by taking away the three-day program, the district has also eliminated the possibility of offering parents something they could afford. “Now, you’ve done away with that altogether,” she said.

Semon also questioned what the district planned to provide children for over $10K a year. “For that, they should have a formal gym class. They should have a language. They should have art. They should have a lot more than they are getting now,” she said, noting that the blame in no way falls on the teachers. “They can only work with what you give them.”

At the conclusion of the agenda meeting, the board - including Bohn who had returned during the public comment period - went back into executive session. At around 11 p.m., they returned and the $820/month ($8,200/year) full day and $420/month ($4,200/year) half day tuition rate was approved unanimously with an 8-0 vote.

“Every time someone complains doesn't mean we have to change things but when you have that many parents upset you have to do something,” Boyle told TAPinto. “After hearing from parents and listening to their concerns and how they wouldn't be able to afford the higher tuition, we collaborated to come up with a figure everyone could agree on.”

In a March 24 email to district parents, Ruberto stated, “The Future Stars program is a formal pre-K program that offers the children a research based curriculum [with] certificated teachers, a fulltime certified school nurse, [and] specialized instruction by a music teacher and physical education teacher for a solid pre-K educational foundation. The Future Stars program goes beyond daycare and is in alignment with the research as it relates to a child’s preschool development.”

Ruberto’s email went on to state that, for the 2016-2017, the Future Stars program will be housed in the Roosevelt Administration Building. Students currently enrolled in the program will be given preference with new registration enrollment commencing on April 4, 2016.

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