Last-minute reprieve for care program in South Jersey school district

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Parents whose children attend a South Jersey before- and after-school program that was abruptly set to shut down Friday  have won  a last-minute reprieve thanks to a new provider stepping in to run the program.

Gloucester City school officials learned earlier this month that the B.E.S.T. program at the Cold Springs School would cease operations on March 31. Parents were advised to drop off and pick up their children at regular school start and end times.

The state-created Educational Information & Resource Center, which operated the program, informed the district on March 17 that it was closing, effective March 31, said school district business administrator Margaret McConnell. The agency, based at Camden County College in Blackwood, had operated the program since 2006.

The unexpected shutdown would have left parents scrambling to make alternative arrangements for their children. But within days, the Camden County district found another provider to take over the program, said Gloucester City schools Superintendent Joseph G. Rafferty.

In a memo to staff, Rafferty said the YMCA of Burlington and County Counties had agreed to step in, effective Monday, and continue the program “in the same fashion that is being done at this time.”

“That means that there will be no stoppage of services,” Rafferty wrote. “It will be great to have a program that will continue to help the students.”

Danielle Wiest, executive director of the YMCA’s aftercare and camp programs, said the agency has hired at least three of the B.E.S.T. program’s staff  and will keep the program primarily intact. The two other staff members were offered jobs but declined, she said.

“We’re trying to make it as seamless as possible,” Wiest said in an interview this week. “Everything is going to be a slow transition.”

Wiest said YMCA officials are meeting with parents at the school and distributing registration forms. New applicants will be accepted, she said. The fees will remain the same for the current school year, roughly $24 a day.

Wiest said she was unaware of any other after-school programs impacted by the EIRC closing.

The YMCA operates after-school programs in 21 districts that serve about 800 children in Burlington and Camden Counties, Wiest said. The agency took over programs in Pennsauken and Haddon Heights when the Camden County YMCA closed in 2008, she said.

“We’ve done this before,” Wiest said.

About 70 students in pre-K through third grade are currently enrolled in Gloucester City’s B.E.S.T. program, which also offers summer school, McDonnell said. The services and staff were solely provided by EIRC, with no funding from the district, she said.

David Lindenmuth, executive director of EIRC, did not respond to messages seeking comment. The agency’s website has been  taken down and details were sketchy about what prompted the agency to announce that it was going out of business.

In published reports, Lindenmuth cited losses over $3.7 million over the last three years, past bad business practices, and failed programs. For years, the EIRC has provided education services, workshops, and consultants to assist New Jersey schools.

“There are a lot of good people at EIRC that are going to be losing their positions,” Lindenmuth told He joined the agency in August, overseeing 42 full-time staff and an annual budget between $15 million and $18 million.

“From a professional development and a service need, it’s going to cause a lot of gaps for districts and a lot of difficulty in getting things done,”  he said.

Lindenmuth told that the agency primarily relied on grants and payments from school districts. Parents in Gloucester City made payments on a sliding scale, based on their income, officials said.

EIRC received state funding until 2010, when it received $405,000, according to David Saenz Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Education. It was unknown why the funding ended.

Saenz said the state is monitoring the pending closing.

EIRC previously was located at the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University. It moved to Blackwood last year.

The closing would be a big loss for school districts and some colleges that have used its services. The EIRC served the entire state, although much of its work was done in South Jersey. In the past, it sponsored a Russian-American teacher exchange  program, a resource center for parents, staff training and teacher development.

“It’s a shame to see what had been a great resource in years past disappearing,” said interim Woodbury School Superintendent Robert Goldschmidt. EIRC  provided his district’s internet service, he said. The district is now seeking another provider.

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