Full Day Kindergarten is safe...for now in Toms River Regional Schools as District officials continue to simultaneously battle for school funding from the state and carefully craft a budget for the upcoming school years.

Toms River Regional School District Superintendent David Healy issued a letter to the school community and parents announcing that Full-Day K is remaining in place for the 2020-2021 school year.

Parents will be notified of upcoming registration dates and strongly encouraged to register early to maximize the chances of their children being placed in their home school.

Registration will take place in the twelve elementary schools in March 2020.

Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent David Healy told WOBM News on Friday that the reason kindergarten was on the chopping block was because of the finances they're losing from the S2 legislation.

"In terms of our full-day kindergarten, that it was on the chopping block at all was purely a matter of finances resulting from millions in state aid losses from S2, and the fact that kindergarten is not technically a state-mandated program," Healy told WOBM News. "The certainty of its impact-- amidst confusing and unpredictable maneuvering by state officials-- made retaining full-day K as high a priority as implementing it was in 2015."

Healy said that the district still has a $5-million dollar shortfall for the upcoming school year.

"This means, as has been presented before, we have no choice but to find that $5 million by making cuts to non-mandated staffing, programs and services. Unfortunately, they remain on the table," Healy said.

While kindergarten is safe for next school year, sports, drama and other clubs and activities as well as staff jobs remain on the line and Toms River School officials are exploring all possible options to keep those items in tact moving forward including paying to play sports.

"To minimize the impact to these areas, and as we painstakingly develop our budget, we are looking into additional options including a pay-for-participation fee for our co-curricular and athletic participants, and additional reductions to many budget line items," Healy said. "Keep in mind, in the 2019-20 budget we reduced all line items by 10% in addition to nearly 80 staff members and 55 assistant coaches. The fact remains that the well is dry and any cuts to any of our programs and staff further deteriorate all that we have worked so hard to build and maintain. And although all parts of our educational programs are vital, as each year progresses and the cuts increase to the tune of nearly $100 million cumulatively, we remain reluctantly resolute in preserving only what is legally required and even that will be an impossibility."

While the Toms River outlook is hanging in the balance like Brick, Jackson, Lavallette, Little Egg Harbor, Manchester, Point Pleasant Beach and Point Pleasant Borough School Districts in Ocean County and many others across the state may not be able to even keep kindergarten let alone other activities with the school funding formula that is lacking transparency.

"Actions at the state level involving non-mandated programs has been, to be quite honest, counterintuitive," Healy said. "On one hand, tens of millions in funding ($90 million this year alone) has been directed at pre-school expansion, which on the surface is a good thing. But, simultaneously nearly 20% of NJ school districts can't even provide full-day kindergarten, which the research equally, if not to a greater extent, supports over pre-k programs. And to make matters even worse, many districts, including Toms River, that are being adversely affected by S2 will be forced to eliminate their full day kindergarten programs despite the fact that, as recently as April of 2019, and for the third time in five years, New Jersey legislators pushed for a task force to study the feasibility of requiring full-day K for all five year olds in NJ. The 2018 bill sponsored by Senator Ruiz required some districts to begin offering such a program by the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, and all other school districts by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. What happened?"

Healy said that the S2 legislation along with Governor Phil Murphy's recent veto of a bill that would have provided cap relief to districts like Toms River, "sends mixed messages."

"If we’re being stripped of the funding that otherwise would allow us to host our kindergarten program, and then denied any recourse to recoup that funding, what are we supposed to do? Again, there are still 20 percent of districts throughout New Jersey that don’t even offer full-day kindergarten, and programs like ours are now at risk. Where are pre-schoolers supposed to go?  Again, counterintuitive," Healy said.

Toms River and many other school districts are operating in the dark when determining what stays and what goes in the budget after repeated requests by the TR Schools, Brick Schools and others searching for transparency and a release from State Lawmakers like Senate President Steve Sweeney of the per pupil and school funding formula have gone unanswered or denied.

"To the extent that we can’t necessarily rely on external direction, or even a hint of support, we’re doing everything in our power to retain what we consider to be a critically-important and clearly impactful program," Healy said. "As for the other aforementioned programs and services, we’ll know more about their status in the coming weeks but for now and as things remain they are in danger of being compromised in this 2020-21 budget."

In a previous interview below, Healy and TRS Business Administrator Bill Doering discussed how the S2 legislation is affecting the district:

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