At least 13 day-care centers serving hundreds of Montgomery County children may be forced to shut down in June because of the county's plans to close schools where the centers now lease space.
Working parents, angry over the prospect of losing child-care services, have charged that the school administration has acted callously in ignoring the impact that school closings will have on many of the nearly 1,800 school-age children now enrolled in day-care programs in 43 public schools.
But school Superintendent Edward Andrews says the privately operated day-care programs are not the "legal responsibility" of the school administration and were not considered in the overall plan for school closings.
"We are able to rent to them only when there is surplus space," Andrews said. He predicted that "there will be space after schools are closed" and that the school administration intends to help day-care centers find new locations.
Parents and day-care organizations are not convinced. They worry that other schools not slated for closing may have to give up their own child-care centers in order to accommodate new students who transfer when other schools are consolidated.
"The school system just does not believe that day care exists," says Karabelle Pizzigati, president of the Ayrlawn Elementary School Parent-Teachers Association. "Employes who depend on current child-care services may actually have to resign their positions if suitable child-care arrangements cannot be found."
Hardest hit under the Andrews plan is the southwestern part of the county, including Bethesda, where six day-care centers could be forced to close or to relocate at a tremendous cost.
One school targeted is the Ayrlawn Elementary School, which houses the largest school-based day-care program in the county, with 94 students.
The superintendent's plan would send children from Ayrlawn to Wyngate Elementary School, which has a smaller day-care center for 40 children. But if those schools are consolidated, Wyngate would have no space available for either its own or Ayrlawn's program.
The primary users of the Ayrlawn center are employes at the neighboring National Institutes of Health, the county's largest employer. Acting NIH director Thomas Malone has told school board members that the plan would hurt low-income parents who work at NIH and also would threaten a preschool day-care program on the NIH campus that is operated by the same group that runs the Ayrlawn program.
"During the austerity of the current hiring freeze, NIH cannot afford to lose employes who might have to resign if they can not avail themselves of child-care services," Malone wrote in a letter to the school board. "Nor do we want to see such a hardship imposed on these families."
Although school officials have suggested transferring day-care programs to junior high school campuses, some day-care center directors, such as Anne Schmitz, who runs the program at Ayrlawn, oppose moving children away from elementary school grounds. "School-based child care can give children those extra minutes after school to finish the assignment, return a book to the library, or participate in extracurricular activities," Schmitz told school board members at a public hearing this week.
Gerald Calderone, whose children have attended Ayrlawn, predicts that in some instances parents will withdraw their children from schools if child care is not provided on the school grounds, thus exacerbating the problem of low enrollment and utilization that the board has pledged to fight.
Beyond these arguments, there is concern that day-care organizations will be unable to meet the added costs of renting expensive commercial space and transporting children to locations outside of schools.
"The real problem is that we don't have transportation and we can't afford it," says Janet Oppenheimer, executive director of the Montgomery County Day Care Association, which sponsors programs for 513 children in the county schools. "It would be a real problem financially, but the other problem is that we can't assume that we can even find space."
To compensate for the extensive closings in the southwest part of the county, the superintendent has suggested using the Ayrlawn building for all of the school-based day-care programs that are forced to relocate. But he concedes that under current state law that may not be feasible because school buildings must be used primarily for activities sponsored by the school system.