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AUTISM PROGRAM GETS HELP FROM BERGEN COUNTY

Record - 5/6/2018

A special-needs program that prepares autistic students for life after school is getting a boost from Bergen County.

The Bergen County Improvement Authority is arranging up to $5 million in loans so the Northern Valley Regional district can buy a building in Norwood.

Kathy Vuoncino, director of the Valley Program, said the "potential of owning our building is not only exciting, but a dream come true for the staff and students."

"We have been waiting since 1994 to have a home of our own," she said Wednesday.

The Valley Program, which has students ages 3-21, supports those with special needs, with most of the student body diagnosed with autism. Students are able to learn life skills through pre-vocational and vocational classes, which aim to prepare them for life after they leave the school system.

The program, which educates more than 180 students from 37 school districts, is housed in the Holy Family Catholic Academy in Norwood, where the district pays rent to the Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish. The district signed a lease in July 2016 with the option of a three-year renewal. Previously, the program was moved around a couple of times in Northvale and Harrinton Park after outgrowing its space.

Since last year, district officials raised $160,000 toward an estimated $1.2 million downpayment on the building, which has a purchase price of $5.9 million.

That's where the county hopes to step in. The Bergen County Improvement Authority will be making an application with the Local Finance Board to finance the projects, through the issuance of revenue bonds not to exceed $5 million, according to a resolution passed by the board in late March.

"It's a great avenue for school districts and towns to work with the county," said Santana.

Essentially, the county backs the project as a lender, and the district pays the county back, said Superintendent James Santana. Since the county has a AAA credit rating, interest rates on the project are lower. The district is also waiting for approval from the Department of Education.

"It'll help keep tuition stable as we move forward," said Santana. "It's a big win for everyone; I'm excited."

County Executive James J. Tedesco III said the county and Improvement Authority are "committed to investing in our children and our communities." Having the AAA credit rating allows the county to fund "vital projects like the Valley Program," while being responsible on behalf of tax payers, said Tedesco.

"We are proud to give all of Bergen County's children every opportunity to succeed," said Tedesco.

After buying the building, district officials hope to make upgrades to further their mission. In the past, the program received a school bus, iPads for non-verbal students to communicate with and Smart Boards for all 25 classes thanks to donations from the non-profit Valley Program Foundation for Children with Autism.

It is impractical to invest in a building the district doesn't own, said Kathy Vuoncino, director of the Valley Program, during fundraising efforts last year.

Safety upgrades will be a high priority, such as repaving the parking lot and window and bathroom upgrades, said Vuoncino. Later, Vuoncino hopes to see field upgrades, a new playground, more sensory rooms, and perhaps even a pool for aquatic therapy.

"We can now utilize the facilities/property 24/7 if we want to, looking at additional activities beyond the school day that may help our students," said Vuoncino.

"The consistency of being in the same location, without ever having to move again, is the icing on the cake."

Nearly 1 in 34 children have autism in New Jersey, compared with one in 68 nationally, according to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The district is still trying to meet its $500,000 goal to go toward the down payment, said Santana. Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Valley Program Foundation, 200 Summit Street, Norwood, NJ 07648.

For more information about Valley Program Foundation, visit valleyprogramfoundation.com/funding

 
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