Children’s center closing, free school expands

05/06/2020

Fears that the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District’s tuition-free preschool program would push the area’s longtime preschool out of business have come to pass. Next month, the Bolinas Children’s Center will close, and in its place, the school district will open its preschool to 3-year-olds.

The children’s center, operated by Community Action Marin since 1973, has faced low enrollment and growing debt for the last several years. When the school district launched its tuition-free program for 4-year-olds in 2017, those issues were exacerbated as the center shifted to serving mostly 3-year-olds. The center’s director, Susan Tacherra, also says the century-old building is unsafe. 

At a special meeting of the Bolinas-Stinson board last week, Monique Liebhard, CAM’s vice president of children and family services, told trustees that the center will close on June 30. Her announcement was news to the center’s teachers and parents; CAM had not publicized that the building was unsafe or that a closure was imminent. Seeing a need, the school board voted unanimously to expand the free preschool program to include 3-year-olds.

Blindsided parents are concerned that families with 2-year-olds will now have nowhere to go. They questioned the hastiness of the board’s decision and the lack of a contingency plan for the preschool in the event that it reaches capacity. 

One family criticized the district for not discussing how to adapt the preschool to Covid-19, and another family called for the replacement of the district’s preschool director, Victoria Maier, who they said was hired undeservedly and has not performed to standards. 

A group of parents at the children’s center are working on a formal letter detailing their concerns. They are asking for a web-based listening session with CAM and pushing for the creation of dedicated childcare for infants and toddlers, which CAM is also interested in. They also have concerns over how their 3-year-old children will fit into the district’s preschool.

The transformation of childcare in Bolinas and Stinson has long-lasting implications. Come fall, the district will operate the only preschool in the area; the Stinson Beach Montessori Preschool closed in 2017 after the district stopped leasing it a classroom. Involved childcare professionals say that families will benefit from consolidation, despite the loss of a beloved institution. 

“The Bolinas Children’s Center’s iconic program and historic building have formed an important chapter in the lives of countless members of our community,” district superintendent John Carroll said in a video announcement. “It’s a privilege for the school district to continue that work.”

The district is working on a partnership agreement with CAM, so the nonprofit can continue to get state funding for income-eligible families as it does at the children’s center. Free childcare regardless of income is rare in California, but it’s a goal of Governor Gavin Newsom. Bolinas-Stinson was able to pull it off because the district benefits from relatively high property taxes. The district can add 3-year-olds without any classroom, staffing or funding changes. 

Ms. Tacherra, the current head of the children’s center and the former director of the Stinson Beach preschool, said the changes are for the best. As a preschool teacher in the area since 1976, Ms. Tacherra is a respected voice on the issue. She said the children’s center building—owned by the Bolinas Community Public Utility District—was too reliant on makeshift repairs, and that 3- and 4-year-olds belong in the same classroom.

“I see this as a real opportunity to get children into environments that will be best for them,” she said, adding, “The desperate need right now is for childcare for children under 3.” 

Ms. Tacherra has accepted some older 2-year-olds at the children’s center if a real need existed, but she never had more than two enrolled at a time. CAM planned to hold community listening sessions to figure out how to serve children age 2 and under before closing, but the shutdown got in the way. 

Ms. Liebhard’s team, with help from Ms. Tacherra, is now looking to support an individual who could develop a home childcare program, with state subsidies and training support. Other solutions include a parent co-op or a developmental play group.

Parents in Bolinas say a large cohort of children born in 2018 are getting ready for preschool, and now they have nowhere to go. 

“There are at least 16 little kids turning 2 this year in Bolinas, and that’s just on our baby group list,” said Leila Monroe, the mother of one of two 2-year-olds currently at the children’s center. 

Ms. Monroe is feeling stressed about what she is going to do in the fall. She is eight months pregnant and with family unable to visit, her childcare options are slim. Since her son doesn’t turn 3 until December, he won’t be eligible for the free preschool until next spring.

When the cohort of 2-year-olds turn 3, it could also push the free program to capacity. The preschool is licensed for 20 students at one time, and with two chaperones, Ms. Maier and teacher Omar Rifkin, the class can enroll up to 24.

If the school surpasses 20 students, schedules could be arranged so that groups stay below maximum occupancy, Mr. Carroll said. He is working with Ms. Maier on a contingency plan that would likely involve prioritizing students from within the district. Fewer than 15 3- and 4-year-olds are expected in the fall, Mr. Carroll said.

The demise of the children’s center was brought on by several compounding issues. A decade ago, the preschool was thriving, but over the years, enrollment and revenue declined, even before the free preschool launched. The center’s income comes from state waivers for families that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and from tuition, which is $10 an hour. 

Despite the net operating losses, CAM declined to raise tuition because it would exclude some families, Ms. Liebhard said. Adding to the challenge is that the typical childcare model, with all-day care all week, doesn’t fit Bolinas and Stinson families, who tend to seek part-time care.

When the district’s free preschool launched on the Stinson Beach campus in 2017, it left the children’s center with mostly 3-year-olds. The center had just six students at the start of this school year, and it has 11 students now. 

“It’s been like that for a few years, and we’ve just kind of limped along, thinking perhaps the enrollment would grow, and that just hasn’t happened,” Ms. Liebhard said.

The BCPUD building is facing foundation issues tied to its age. Built in the 1920s as the clubhouse for a resort, the utility district took ownership of the building when it purchased the water system. In the next few years, BCPUD will hire an engineer to assess the building and decide whether to rehabilitate it or move on, general manager Jennifer Blackman said.  

A few parents spoke out before trustees voted. “I feel like all of this is happening really fast, and I hear enough from your guys’ discussion to know that everything isn’t completely ironed out,” said Mark Hug, the father of a 3-year-old and a newborn .

He urged the district to make plans for teaching in the time of Covid-19, because closing the children’s center and sending those kids to the school campus would invite the spread of the virus, he said. He implored the meeting’s guests to put their heads together and find emergency funding to keep the children’s center open for another year.

“There is time to look at this and say, ‘We started making this decision, and it was before this pandemic, before we really realized we don’t have all the facts [on how to deal with Covid-19],’” Mr. Hug said. 

Current preschoolers are doing distance learning over Zoom, but next year’s plans are up in the air. “We are learning to live with uncertainty,” Mr. Carroll said.

Parents also brought up past concerns about Mr. Carroll’s hiring practices, specifically around his hiring of Ms. Maier. District parents Christine Chin-Nemec and Toby Nemec have written several letters to the board criticizing the “deficient hiring process that resulted in Victoria Maier attaining the position of preschool director.”

Their latest letter, sent last week, heavily criticizes Ms. Maier, alleging that she was the least qualified candidate and has failed to prepare students for kindergarten. The letter labels her as “manipulative, at best,” and it calls for her replacement.

Mr. Carroll maintains that when he hired Ms. Maier, he followed the district’s hiring policy, which has since been modified to require a committee composed of teachers, parents, classified staff, administrators and board members to screen applicants and conduct interviews. He said he has full confidence in the preschool director to oversee the expansion.

Mr. Carroll has been confronted multiple times for making unilateral hiring decisions at both Bolinas-Stinson Union and Lagunitas School Districts, where he also serves as superintendent. All hires have been approved by the board, but his independent screening and interview processes have been the sticking point. Unions at both schools have called for a more transparent and inclusive hiring process, and the boards have responded by strengthening their policies and reducing his authority.