Things got ugly when Deputy Mayor Catherine Gural announced at township committee meeting on June 20 that Kid Connection — the only municipality-run preschool / enrichment program in the state — would close its doors for good in December.
A two-hour public comment session followed, with angry parents, teachers, and others pleading for the town to continue the program — which benefits children (ages 3 through 7) and employs about 36 people who primarily live in the well-to-do township.
The audience of about 80 people persuaded the township committee to take another look at the program, which has been losing about $700,000 annually — translating to about $95 per household in extra taxes each year to subsidize the program.
The Montgomery School Board will meet Tuesday, June 25, at 7:30 pm. The board is expected to address the Kid Connection issue, and to appoint a new board member to fill a recent vacancy. Action will be taken.
Kid Connection teacher Kristin Serio with her family at the June 20 Montgomery Township Committee meeting. She was one of many who spoke up in support of Montgomery’s 38-year-old preschool/enrichment program.
Gural said township taxpayers have been subsidizing the program for years because of thing such as “regulatory changes, escalating benefits costs, more marketing opportunities, and declining enrollment.”
Mayor Sadaf Jaffer’s daughter is enrolled in Kid Connection so she excused herself from the discussion on account of having a conflict of interest.
Audience members voiced common concerns to township committee, primarily — disappointment in a perceived “lack of transparency” from township elected officials and administrators; shock and anger that more than 200 children are already registered for the 2019-2020 school year and parents are now told they will have to find a new arrangement in a short period of time; and a collective loss of pride from proud parents who saw their town named the 2019 “Best Place to Raise a Family” in a recent statewide magazine, only to watch helplessly as a jewel of a child-focused program is seemingly being removed from their crown.
Gural explained that the township committee had formed a subcommittee in February to look at ways for Kid Connection to be self sufficient. It included Gural, Committeeman Marvin L. Schuldiner (whose son went through the program), CFO Michael Pitts, and program director Director Andrea McKenna.
Deputy Mayor Gural said the subcommittee had a solution to outsource the program to “a YMCA.”
A reliable anonymous source told The News that the Somerset County YMCA had been interested in taking over the program, with a three-year contract.
The YMCA pulled out of the deal when, Gural said: “We learned (on June 18) that the school board has two issues that would fundamentally alter the program starting in September.”
“The school district has an immediate need for the five classrooms currently used by Kid Connection in the Orchard Hill Elementary School,” Gural said. “And, due to the results of an internal security and transportation audit, the district would no longer be providing bussing to Kid Connection’s kindergarten enrichment students this fall.”
Kid Connection offers preschool, kindergarten enrichment for Montgomery’s half-day kindergarten, and before/after school programs through grade two from 7:30 am to 6 pm.
Gural said the school board’s changes profoundly impact the services Kid Connection is able to provide and “makes operating the program simply infeasible.”
“While closing this wonderful program is not something the township wants to do,” Gural said, “we have no choice. In order to provide for an orderly closure, and, more importantly, time for our staff and family to make other arrangements, it is our intention to operate the program through the end of 2019.”
A turning point in the meeting came when Montgomery School Board Vice President Phyllis Bursh said she was concerned the township committee was trying to blame the school board. She then asked: “If we give you the classrooms and we give you the busses, will you keep this open until June?”
The audience applauded and chanted: “answer the question, answer the question ...”
Gural said, “we would need a written proposal from the school board.”
The township attorney spoke up to quiet the audience, and described Bursh’s offer as a “hypothetical.”
Audience member Joseph Librizzi, a 25-year resident of Belle Mead, stood up and asked: “If that hypothetical was true, would committee hypothetically agree (to extend the program)?”
“Yes, we would re-examine,” Gural said.
School Board President Minkyo Chenette addressed township committee, as both a parent who had two daughters complete the Kid Connection program, and as a board member.
“I am concerned the township committee did not engage the school board early enough in the process,” she said. “It was all in the back channel. No official conversation happened. And, I am not happy to learn that township committee is throwing us — your partner in town — under the bus. You are trying to make (the school board) to take the blame. It’s lame. I would never do that. I hold my own integrity. If I do something wrong, I would be the first to say I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Let’s fix it together.
The last meeting the school had with the township was June 18, Chenette said. “And we didn’t hear back from you guys. You made a decision, and you delivered it today (in a public meeting).”
The school board and township committee agreed to meet to discuss this issue further — next time on the school’s turf on Tuesday, June 25.
A crowd of Montgomery residents were preparing to organize and attend the meeting to fight to keep what they view as a valuable program.
Montgomery resident Mae Potts started an online petition calling for township committee to keep Kid Connection open and had almost 1,000 signatures right away. The URL is change.org/p/montgomery-township-committee-keep-kid-connection-open. ■