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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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School Board Drops Early Intervention; ARC Will ‘Step Up’

By Rick Racela

The program has a staff of four and an enrollment of 69 children with disabilities, aged birth to 3, who receive services mostly in their homes. Parents were to be notified by letter this week.
Meggan Conover of Green Creek, whose daughter is in the program, told this newspaper she understood there are eight children on a waiting list.
District Business Administrator Diane G. Bitting told the Herald the state Department of Health and Senior Services will be informed “we will not be holding the contract, and they will request proposals from different agencies.”
Superintendent Barbara Makoski last week described the 25-year-old program as “valued and excellent,” but said the district could not afford the cost. It released an analysis that said the program had an annual cost of $344,069, was reimbursed $236,628 and had a “yearly deficit” of $107,436.
Special Services has a $12-million budget, to which the county contributes $3.43 million, and a $5-million “enterprises fund” which includes the Early Intervention Program.
Makoski had expressed the “hope” that a local agency would propose to take over the program, and two potential providers were at the school board meeting: ARC of Cape May County in South Dennis and the Jersey Cape Diagnostic, Training, and Opportunity Center of Crest Haven.
“It’s a critical program and we will step up to the plate,” said ARC Director Franklin S.  Unkle Jr.,”but it’s not quite that simple. My biggest concern is (finding) speech, occupational and physical therapists. But we will submit a proposal.”
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a strong possibility for us,” said Opportunity Center Director George Plewa.  “Our focus is employment.  I would not be interested unless in the most dire circumstances that no one would bid on it.”
“I went to offer my technical experience in dealing with the state over many, many years,” said Plewa.  “It’s a very important service and we need to maintain it in some way, but I’m not sure what that is at this point.”
Unkle said ARC ran the program in Cape May County before the Special Services School District took over.
“At one point,” he said, 11 ARCs ran the program in this state but that is “now down to five.  Two are making it work. They stopped the center-based service and did it all with consultants.  That’s the only way you can make this a break-even proposition.
“We would be starting a whole new program not encumbered with full-time staff and benefits,” he said.
That’s the scenario Makoski described last week.
Privately, sources said the school district program’s high cost was due to the expense of salaries and benefits of veteran, full-time staff.  That staff gets the pay and benefits whether or not client appointments are kept, but the state only reimburses for completed visits.
School administrators were meeting this week to work out staff changes.  Bitting said the three current members of Early Intervention “have seniority over some (teachers) in the general fund. We have to see where we can switch staff around and hopefully use them in other areas.”
ARC provides services and advocates for the developmentally disabled. It has a staff of 175, which includes part time, and 260 clients, according to Unkle. It also operates 17 group homes, two in Vineland, 15 in this county, and “supportive living programs.”
It currently has no program for children aged birth to 3, but does have a crisis respite program for families of those children.
Among concerns expressed by parents with children in the Early Intervention Program was access to the Special Services School District’s swimming pool for therapy.
Contact Zelnik at (609) 886-8600 Ext 27 or: jzelnik@cmcherald.com

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