By Celeste E. Whittaker/Cherry Hill Courier-Post
TRENTON – State lawmakers introduced legislation Monday aimed at keeping Teddy Bear Academy in Marlton from shutting down after this school year.
New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet in October sided with an earlier ruling by an administrative law judge and gave the childcare and preschool program until June 30 to shut down.
However, state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego and Assemblymen Joe Howarth and Ryan Peters introduced legislation they hope will revive the academy and allow other school districts to use public schools and district property for childcare services. All three legislators are Republicans whose district includes Marlton.
“Simply put, we did not agree with the ruling, and we don’t believe the state should come in the way of school districts finding creative ways to provide a service by using unoccupied space that they have,” Addiego said in a news release.
The bill would allow a school district to use its property to provide childcare services during school hours for youngsters who are not yet school age and without regard to residency.
Under current rules, districts are authorized to offer childcare services only before or after regular school hours to school-age children in the district.
“The Evesham Township School District greatly appreciates the efforts of Sen. Addiego and Assemblymen Howarth and Peters,” said Evesham Superintendent John Scavelli, Jr. “From day one, the Teddy Bear Academy has been committed to providing a place where children can grow and develop, and we thank the legislators for standing up for the children, parents and educators that call the academy home.”
Teddy Bear Academy opened in 2014 in a wing of Marlton Middle School.
Administrative Law Judge Solomon Metzger over the summer issued a ruling siding with Under the Sun Learning Center of Marlton. That childcare center in 2014 filed a petition alleging the school district was outside its legal authority in operating Teddy Bear Academy.
The state Department of Education had the choice to adopt, modify or reject the judge’s recent ruling. Repollet adopted it.
The district has argued the academy is a source of revenue and has helped control property taxes. Also, the district stands to lose millions of dollars in aid based on the state’s new school funding formula.
“Many school districts are getting hammered by state aid reductions and are looking for any way they can to not pass the bill onto property taxpayers,” Howarth said in the news release.
“The only way we’re going to lower property taxes in this state is to come up with creative solutions, and that’s exactly what the Evesham School District did. It’s a shame they were ultimately told no.”
Peters applauded the community support for Teddy Bear Academy, calling it "momentous."
"The teachers, children and parents are clearly passionate about the program, and we can’t wait for that passion to spring up in other communities," he said.