More than 100 Montgomery Township residents attended the School Board meeting on June 25 to discuss the future of the town's Kid Connection Program. The board pledged to work with Montgomery Township Committee to extend the children's program through June 2020, and to try to help find a better solution to closing the program — which provides pre-K, half-day kindergarten, and before and after school care for young children.
The discussion moves back to township committee on Wednesday, July 3, at 7 pm in the Montgomery Municipal Building on Route 206. Municipal CFO Michael Pitts is expected to give an in-depth PowerPoint presentation on the program, which is run by Montgomery Township and uses classroom space from and bussing from the school district. See related article: Kid Connection Disconnect.
Kid Connection teachers are all certified teachers.
At the school board meeting in June, President Minkyo Chenette addressed the audience of concerned teachers and parents. The crowd was so large the school board meeting had to be held in the high school performing arts center to comfortably fit all interested parties.
“The township committee and the school board need to find a way to work together to serve our community better," Chenette said.
She announced that school administrators and township officials met on June 24 and agreed that the board of education would support the Montgomery Township Committee in running the current program through June 2020. There will be a legal agreement drafted between the township committee and the board of education for use of the Orchard Hill Elementary School classrooms and bussing for the students.
Between now and January, the school board will study the feasibility of taking over the Kid Connection program from the Montgomery Township Committee — which has been running the program at a $700,000 annual deficit for years. Taxpayers pick up the difference each each at about $95 per household.
"We have to do due diligence," Chenette said, "and, while we cannot promise anything, we promise we will study it and will come up with a solution if we can."
She reiterated that the school board does not operate or control the Kid Connection Program. It is operated by Montgomery Township Committee, she said, and pointed out that it is entirely in their budget, which runs January through December. The board of education has a separate budget, which runs July 2019 through June 2020. Being that the government entities run on different fiscal calendar, it can create some problems.
The board of education has a "fiduciary responsibility to protect our 5,000 children and our $90+ million budget," Chenette said. To add the entire Kid Connection budget to the school budget could put the school district over the two percent cap allowed by the state — which would require the district to hold a budget referendum.
The school board has provided bus transportation, and allowed Kid Connection to use the land and some classrooms at Orchard Hill School.
"We have not had a legal agreement for transportation,"Chenette said. "This burdens the district with a lot of liability issues. We had a bussing issue last September. We did an independent investigation of the incident and found an astonishing amount of liability."
Chenette explained that the school board owns the land where the Kid Connection building stands. There is a 13-year-old lease agreement for that land. Township committee has paid $1 a year to the school board to lease the land.
Kid Connection runs under the NJ Division of Youth of Family Services (DYFS) regulations. The Board of Educations runs under regulation by the NJ Department of Education — so the programs are governed by two separate government entities with different rules.
The school board promised to communicate regularly regarding the program so parents can plan for the upcoming school year — and the board will finalize its decision by January because February is when the Montgomery schools take registration.
As soon as an agreement is reached between township committee and the school board, Chenette said the entities would release a joint statement, vetted by their respective legal representatives.
Montgomery Township Committeeman Marvin Schuldiner, who had a son go through Kid Connection, attended the school board meeting and spoke during the public comment section. Mayor Sadaf Jaffer had formed a subcommittee on Kid Connection as the first priority of business for 2019 and appointed Schuldiner and Deputy Mayor Catherine Gural as soon as the newly elected committee members were worn into office in January.
The Montgomery Township Committee's Kid Connection sub-committee includes Schuldiner, Gural, Montgomery Township Administrator Donato Nieman, Township CFO Michael Pitts, Kid Connection Director Andrea McKenna, and Township Personnel Coordinator Tamarah Novak.
The subcommittee had come to the conclusion to close Kid Connection, and announced the decision at its last township committee meeting, and they published an online statement.
Schuldiner said to the school board: “I am happy we have an agreement to run the kid connection program through the end of the year (June 2020).” Hopefully, he added, both governing bodies will be able to ratify the agreement.
Paul Blodgett of Belle Mead spoke during the public comment section. He said he had children go through the Kid Connection program. "I thank the township committee and board of education for coming to a tentative agreement to run the program through June," he said. “But I don’t think all is rosy here. This stuff can’t keep happening in this district. We pride ourselves on education. That’s the reason most of us live here. But it’s not fair to the township residents for this poor planning to continue to happen; and the lack of communication; and the lack of foresight."
Blodgett told the school board to "extend your horizons and stop worrying about the things right in front of your face and look out a few years. It happened with the superintendent. The town cannot sustain itself with a lack of planning. This should be a moment of reflection, not a moment of celebration."
President Chennette responded: "We did not know. This is a township committee program, not a board of education program. Somebody told me I had better show up at the township committee meeting and listen to the conversation. And I’m glad I went. Otherwise we wouldn't have known."
Montgomery resident Mae Potts, who started an online petition that now has 2,200 signatures, said she plans to deliver the signatures to township committee. She asked the school board to extend Kid Connection through June of 2021 in order to have enough time to explore having the school board institute a full day kindergarten and pre-K.
Chenette responded: "Full-time kindergarten is not mandated yet in NJ. If we bring that program, we have no money in the budget to pay for it , which means we may have to go out for a referendum. We have to be very careful about this, because Hillsborough had a referendum and it was voted down."
"I need you to understand that township committee has run Kid Connection under a $700,000 annual deficit for years. That is not going to change for us. Remember that. Because of the rising health care costs, everyone in the public sector is experiencing the same rising costs. So we have to study it.
"Since it is a township committee program, you will have to ask them if they are willing to extend the existing program to June 2021," Chenette said. "If their answer is yes, then we can work with them to provide the land lease ($1), the classrooms (have been provided for free for 30 years), and the bussing."
Hal B. Rappaport of Belle Mead said: "I did some research and found that 92 percent or 480 or 520 school districts in New Jersey have full day kindergarten. Montgomery's taxes are 29 percent higher than NJ’s average. I question this. Why can't Montgomery afford to offer full-day kindergarten?"
Chenette said she encourages Montgomery taxpayers to "go down to Trenton and tell the legislature they want equal school funding. That’s what the problem is. We essentially do not get state funding. We almost get nothing. It is under four percent because we are district J and a well-to-do town. Essentially, we don’t get state aid. And, we are not allowed to increase our budget beyond two percent (state budget cap regulation) unless we go to a public vote."
With the state budget cap, a referendum appears to be in Montgomery's near future.