Families and staff of Evesham Township School District’s Teddy Bear Academy rally to save daycare

Parents and staff want state law changed to allow school districts to operate daycare programs.

Chants of “The Bear is Fair” and “Save our School” rang out this week when families and employees of the Evesham Township School District’s Teddy Bear Academy daycare gathered to rally against a state statute that could soon close the program.

Administrative Law Judge Solomon Metzger effectively ordered the closure of Teddy Bear Academy when he recently ruled the ETSD Board of Education exceeded its authority when the board opened the daycare program four years ago.

The ruling came as result of a petition filed with the state commissioner of education by Under The Sun Learning Center of Marlton, another local childcare facility.

Under the Sun filed the petition after Evesham’s Teddy Bear Academy opened, through which Under the Sun alleged state statute prevented the ETSD from using its own building to run a daycare that would operate outside of school hours and serve children who weren’t yet school-aged or living within the district’s boundaries.

Since Teddy Bear Academy operates in a previously unused wing of Marlton Middle School and accepts children as young 6 weeks old living in any municipality, Metzger agreed with Under the Sun’s interpretation of state law.

In response to the judge’s decision, officials with the ETSD said the district has filed exceptions with the state commissioner of education, who can adopt, modify or reject the judge’s ruling.

In the meantime, parents and families of Teddy Bear Academy decided to hold their own rally this week outside the doors of the daycare at Marlton Middle School in an attempt to persuade Gov. Murphy to have his commissioner of education side with the ETSD, as well as to get state legislators to change the state statute that’s forcing Teddy Bear Academy to close.

Families and other supporters carried signs with slogans such as “Save Our Babies,” “Please Don’t Close My School” and “Have a Heart, Do Your Part, Save TBA.”

Leah Perlmutter, who serves as the childcare director for the ETSD, has been in charge of Teddy Bear Academy from its inception, from ordering supplies, to hiring staff to even helping decide the daycare’s name.

Perlmutter said she feels as if the program was a baby of her own, even with the program being run by the school district.

“Most of our staff have been here since day one and we’re a family here,” Perlmutter said. “Teddy Bear Academy is a family with our staff and families that attend and our community.”

Although Perlmutter said Teddy Bear’s families were “shocked” and “devastated” when they first heard of the ruling, Perlmutter said those families have “put the past behind them” and are now focusing on keeping the daycare open and getting the law changed.

“We would like to see the law modified to allow public school districts the opportunity to operate daycare centers,” Perlmutter said.

One parent at the rally was Melissa Cunane, who said she has one younger child in their last year at the academy and whose older child was part of TBA’s first graduating class.

Cunane said her family’s experience at Teddy Bear Academy had been nothing but wonderful.

“They treat every child here like they’re their own children, even the older siblings that might not go here they treat well,” Cunane said. “They take the best care and the kids are excited to see everyone, whether they’re here or they’re anywhere else in the community.”

Susanne Krivanek, another Teddy Bear parent at the rally, agreed that lawmakers in Trenton should allow districts to operate daycare programs such as Teddy Bear Academy.

“Who would have thought that a business (Under the Sun) that is in business to nurture children would make a move like this … (Teddy Bear Academy) was a very innovative program when it got started,” Krivanek said, “It still is an innovative program, but when it comes down to it, the law didn’t catch up with the innovation.”

According to school officials, Teddy Bear Academy currently cares for more than 80 children and serves a source of revenue for the district.