State will pay for some additional pre-K programs
Wait list shrinking, but funding negotiations reveal deeper issue
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Aug 04, 2013 | 3437 views | 0 0 comments | 114 114 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Dozens of mothers of 3- and 4-year-olds in Hoboken were shocked last month to get letters telling them that their child was waitlisted for the city’s free Early Childhood Program for fall of 2013. Hoboken is one of 31 “Abbott” special needs school districts in New Jersey that gets special state funding for pre-school programs due to a series of state Supreme Court rulings saying that kids in the urban school districts deserve to have education that’s comparable to the suburbs, where high property taxes fund high-performing schools.

When parents found out their kids were waitlisted for the programs last month, they began e-mailing the district to find answers. The controversy opened up a bigger issue about how funding for the programs works.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback said last week that several families have gotten off the wait list in the last month. More than 800 families applied to the program for the coming school year, and 70 were waitlisted. However at the end of the week, the state Department of Education agreed to additional funding for two additional classrooms, said Toback. Thus, the wait list will shrink to approximately 43 kids.

If families move out of town, the list will shrink further. The district has identified at least 15 registered families that it believes no longer live in Hoboken. Toback said he expects those spots to open once school starts in September.
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“The district has both the right and the responsibility to go back to the state and demand more funding.” – David Sciarra of the Education Law Center
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Toback downplayed parents’ worries last week, claiming that the waiting list is an annual occurrence and calling it “nothing to panic about.”

“I think there was a bit of an overreaction to this, but I can see why parents would be upset,” he said. “This is what happens every summer. The only difference is that we might have more kids [in Hoboken] this year.”

State rules

According to Michael Yaple, a Department of Education spokesman, during the 2006-2007 school year, 333 children enrolled in the program. By last year, that number had risen to 686.

Toback said that there were over 800 applicants this year. Aware that at least some additional classrooms, teachers and supplies would be necessary come September, the district began negotiations with the state in July for an additional classroom, which it received.

It took longer to convince the state to provide funding for a second classroom, which was verbally approved on Thursday, said Toback. The district must wait to receive written confirmation of the funding before it can accept ten more children into the program. These 10 children would bring the waiting list to 43 children. Children will be offered those spots based on a lottery, said Toback.

Watchdog’s criticisms

David Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center, a non-profit advocacy group based in Newark that provides legal assistance on behalf of students in Abbott districts, criticized the district’s waiting list this week, alleging that Toback and his team are not doing enough to find space for the remaining children on it.

“The district needs to be aggressively making sure that every student on its list is placed in a classroom by the first day of school,” he said. “The rules are clear that you can’t just put people on a waiting list.”

Despite the two additional classrooms, and Toback’s claim that Hoboken is an unusual case due to the city’s fluctuating population, Sciarra expressed concern that the district had only vied for two additional classrooms, and not enough to accommodate everyone.

“The district has both the right and the responsibility to go back to the state and say ‘These are the kids we’ve got,’ and demand more funding,’ ” he said. “We feel that the district’s response to this waiting list has been less than that.”

But Toback said such an approach would end poorly for Hoboken. Convinced that a substantial portion of the remaining children on the waiting list won’t show up for the first day of school, due to Hoboken’s transient population, he said that asking the state for additional funding before the start of the school year would be “premature.”

“We’ve done it before, and it went down with disastrous results,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where now we’ve got two or more classes with just a few kids in them and we have to move everyone around.”

Fractured negotiations?

Despite the Supreme Court’s mandate that the district accept every child that has applied to the program, the negotiations for additional funding between the district and the state are indicative of a deeper issue affecting Abbott districts around the state, said Sciarra.

Throughout the administration of Gov. Christopher Christie, says Sciarra, Abbott districts with early childhood programs have increasingly had trouble recruiting children to the program. Under the previous administration, districts were encouraged to engage in intense outreach programs, and bring as many students as possible into the program.

“Under this administration, it’s been increasingly difficult for districts to do the type of outreach that they’d like to,” he said. “Parents are being told there aren’t enough seats in the classrooms.”

Toback downplayed any difficulties with the state, saying that Department of Education has been “very supportive” throughout the waiting list process, and disagreed with Sciarra that the district had limited its public outreach due to troubles with Trenton.

“Our approach hasn’t really changed,” Toback said. “Keeping in mind that this program isn’t designed for middle or upper class children, we recruit heavily in the Hoboken Housing Authority, often going to door to door.”

State comments

Yaple, speaking for the state, did not address Sciarra’s accusations directly, but did say that Department of Education is behind the district in its efforts to find spots for each child.

“We have been speaking directly with the district to help them reach full enrollment,” he said. “We will continue to support the district until that happens.”

Sciarra said that the Education Law Center will help the district should it require assistance in advocating before the state on the behalf of it's students.

“We understand that dealing with the state can be difficult,” he said. “When Abbott districts have had issues, we have represented them, and we try to do everything we can, because in these cases, ultimately it’s the state that bears full responsibility.”

Two weeks ago, mayoral candidate Ruben Ramos, a state Assemblyman, held a press conference to say that every child should be placed, by law, and the district had not done enough to fight for more funding.

“It seems like the Department of Education and the Hoboken School District Superintendent are engaged in a vigorous round of playing the blame game,” he said at the time, adding that he hopes all 70 spots open up by the start of school.

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

SIDEBAR

Wallace principal resigns, district to interview for replacement next week

Jay Medlin, who served as the principal at Wallace Elementary School for the past two years, resigned recently, Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback confirmed on Friday. He did not disclose the direct reason for Medlin’s resignation, calling it a “personal matter,” but did note that Medlin’s new commute, to the Eatontown school district, will shave around 100 miles off the administrator’s daily commute.

A committee of teachers and administrators has been conducting interviews to find a new principal throughout the summer, and Toback said that this week he will interview four of the finalists.

The departure is the latest in many changes of top administrators in the schools in recent years, but Toback said he hopes to present a new principal to the Board of Education at its Aug. 20 meeting.

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