EVERETT — Facing criticism from parents, staff and students, as well as questions from elected officials, Everett Community College leaders have halted a plan to close its pre-kindergarten facility at the end of the school year.
In a letter sent to staff two days before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 23, President Daria Willis announced plans to close the Early Learning Center in June. It “is not financially sustainable,” she wrote. According to her, a review of the center’s expenses and revenues for five years prior to the pandemic showed a net loss over $700,000 — though current and past staff disagreed with the dollar figures and pointed to the pandemic’s effects on enrollment as a reason for recent revenue losses.
Willis said the YMCA of Snohomish County had stepped forward as a possible partner to lease the space and run similar programs.
But on Tuesday, school leaders made an about-face.
An hour before that evening’s Board of Trustees evening meeting, and a simultaneous union gathering in response to the proposed closure, Willis sent another letter. It was also signed by Board of Trustees Chairwoman Toraya Miller.
“… the college will temporarily pause any action on program closure at this time,” the letter said.
School leaders said they plan to work with city, county and state officials to find permanent funding sources.
Willis is leaving the college at the end of December to lead Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland.
Her initial closure announcement surprised employees and families of dozens of children enrolled in the program at 820 Waverly Ave. If the center closes, those families would have to look elsewhere for early education, or apply to a nonprofit program operating there.
The program is licensed for up to 120 children and normally has around 100 enrolled. Today it has 45children enrolled from 40 families.
“I was devastated,” said Dani Michel, 37.
A single mom, Michel is studying for her GED with a goal to start a career in accounting and bookkeeping. Having her 4-year-old child enrolled at the Early Learning Center helped while she was in classes and did homework, she said.
Even during the pandemic, they would come to the facility for an hour of play and instruction with the teacher a couple days a week, Michel said.
“This is the most incredible group of people I’ve ever met,” she said. “I wish I could keep her teacher forever.”
Tamara Heng, 35, enrolled her 3-year-old child this fall while she pursues a degree at the college as a full-time student who wants to become a nurse.
“This was our only option,” she said.
Other child care and early education programs can require deposits or have income eligibility so low that “you basically have to make nothing,” Heng said.
Even then, many other programs aren’t as focused on education or don’t have as many college-educated teachers running the classrooms as the Early Learning Center, said Mollie Player, 43, whose 4-year-old child is enrolled there.
“Why do you close one school that is actually working, that changes the world?” Player said.
Willis discussed the center’s funding challenge at the outset of Tuesday’s board meeting.
Trustees voiced optimism a funding solution will be found. But they also cautioned that the center’s operating losses jeopardize other campus programs.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that our institution is financially stable,” Trustee Betty Cobbs said.
As they met, about 100 people watched the live-streamed meeting in the Henry M. Jackson Conference Center on the college campus.
In attendance were State Rep. Emily Wicks, Snohomish County Councilmembers Megan Dunn and Jared Mead, Everett City Councilmember Liz Vogeli and city councilmembers-elect Mary Fosse, Paula Rhyne and Don Schwab.
People in the crowd booed and yelled “Lies!” as administrators and trustees discussed the Early Learning Center’s future.
In her report to the trustees, college employee and union representative Stephanie Doyle called for “formal apologies” from the trustees and Willis to the center’s families and staff.
“The damage that you caused was completely uncalled for,” she said. “People have been looking for jobs, have already left due to this and families didn’t know if they had a place anymore.”
Nina Benedetti, president of the faculty union, said the decision to pause closure plans “came as a great relief to many on our campus and in our community.”
However, she said, trustees “have not been getting the complete story” of what’s occurring under Willis’ administration.
“You are the trustees of a college in crisis,” she said. “This community of educators, learners and stewards of the public good desperately need more from our board to reverse the destructive trajectory our college is on.”
In all, leaders of four unions spoke. As Doyle ended her comments over the live stream, she carried her laptop into the conference center room and turned her camera to show the crowd. Some held signs that read, “We (love) our ELC,” “Stop the sell-out” and “Don’t close schools that work.”
“I really appreciate all of the comments made today,” board Chairwoman Miller said.
She acknowledged those gathered at the conference center: “We appreciate you as well and we see you.”
For most of its existence, aside from the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been open to students and the general public. Demand has meant long waiting lists, sometimes with people securing a spot even before a child is born, assistant director Amie Waters said.
Social distancing guidelines have kept enrollment down. But to bring in more children requires more staff, many of whom were laid off during the early months of the pandemic. But the college isn’t posting those jobs, staff members said.
“We need more teachers,” Waters said.
Waters has worked off and on at the center since 2000. She submitted her resignation within days of the closure announcement. Her last day is Dec. 7.
Former Early Learning Center director Kristina Saunsaucie said the $700,000 deficit sounded like an accounting maneuver.
When Saunsaucie took over in 2016, the program was spending more than it brought in through grants and tuition. But changing staff to have more part-time and fewer full-time positions addressed some of the expenses, and enrollment grew, she said.
An annual deficit, to her, appeared equal to salaries for the director and an administrative assistant, which had been part of the college’s budget. If those positions were moved into the Early Learning Center budget, that would cause recurring losses, she said.
“To come back now five years later and say that was a loss is frankly not true,” Saunsaucie said. “It definitely is a re-categorizing.”
The college provided a general summary of its budget to The Daily Herald, but not a detailed breakdown.
Saunsaucie had resigned in the days before the announcement was made. She left because she worried about her job security in a position that was not covered by a collective bargaining agreement and did not have union representation. She said she didn’t know the college would close the center.
Saunsaucie is still employed at the college as an associate faculty member in the education and psychology departments.
After resuming in-person care and education, the college decided to enroll only low-income families who are supported through grant funding. That includes people who receive assistance through the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS) and the state Department of Children, Youth and Families-administered Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).
The college got over $1.6 million in federal CARES Act funds, some of which was used to recover losses related to the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan Act included over $12 million for the college, as well, which was used in part to clear tuition debt for about 3,400 students.
About $600,000 of federal relief money was spent on the Early Learning Center last year, said Shelby Burke, vice president of finance.
“There is not sustainable funding past May 2022,” she said.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.