After legislation to save the Evesham-based Teddy Bear Academy and other school-sponsored early childhood programs across the state was introduced, lawmakers and school officials are calling on the public to show their support.
By Kelly Kultys/Burlington County Times
EVESHAM — After legislation to save the township school district’s early childhood and preschool program was introduced on Monday, lawmakers and school officials have taken to rallying support for the bill.
“Now is the time to drive support for this,” Assemblyman Ryan Peters, R-8th of Hainesport, said. “We want to get it moving and get it through the process so that the families that rely on the Teddy Bear Academy and the other public day cares in the state don’t have to worry about next year.”
Peters, Assemblyman Joe Howarth, of Evesham, and state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego, of Evesham, all of whom represent the state’s 8th legislative district which includes the township, introduced legislation to allow school districts across the state to operate child care programs for children under school age, and offer the services to nonresident families.
Their proposed legislation comes after the popular Teddy Bear Academy was ordered to close in June 2019, when Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet upheld a ruling that stated the school district exceeded its authority when it opened the program in 2014.
A neighboring child care center, Under the Sun, filed a petition against the district, arguing that the district wasn’t authorized to run a child care center for those who weren’t school-aged during the entire school day and for those who were not residents. A judge ruled in the center’s favor earlier this year and Repollet upheld the ruling, ordering the academy closed after this school year was finished.
“We are going to make sure the future of the Teddy Bear Academy is no longer in doubt,” Addiego said.
Leah Perlmutter, director of the Teddy Bear Academy, said she was grateful the local officials heard parents’ and staff’s calls for help.
“I am so happy that our local legislators are as passionate about our program, Teddy Bear Academy, and the effort (Evesham Township School District) has made to ‘think outside the box’ to generate more revenue for our district,” she said.
A group of parents and staff members formed a “TBA Should Stay” group that hosted rallies at the Statehouse and called on lawmakers to help them save the program. Perlmutter said she’s glad some of the local lawmakers have heard their calls.
“It makes sense all around,” she said. “It definitely makes sense to provide quality, early childhood education if you have the empty space to do so. (Teddy Bear Academy) has become a family and our staff and parents will not give up. Good things should not be forced to end.”
The legislation would also affect at least five other early childhood programs across the state, according to Addiego, Howarth and Peters, including Piscataway Corner programs, Barnegat “Bengal Club Early Learning Center,” the infant toddler development center in Ridgewood and the Toms River Early Learning Center.
“There are school districts throughout the state that stand to lose millions if their facilities close,” Howarth said. “We can’t have that in this high-tax state.”