The St. Michael-Albertville School Board on Monday night showed unanimous support for the district's Just4Kids program, when local childcare business owners asked them to shut it down because it competes with their business.
Asking the board to consider the change was Nancy Pelletier, owner of ABC Chilcare, her husband Randy Pelletier, and president of Wright County Family Childcare Association Hollee Saville, who also owns Happee Hollee's Childcare.
All told the school board that it's not the place of government to compete with the private sector, and that ABC Childcare has seen a decrease in enrollment since the district started its Just4Kids program five years ago. The Just4Kids program is a preschool and pre-kindergarten program for four and five-year-old children.
"We request that you support local businesses in the community that support the school district," Nancy Pelletier said at the meeting. "Private entities pay taxes to support this, and you're shutting us down by providing this program."
Pelletier told the board she has laid off eight staff members in the last five years, since Just4Kids began.
Randy Pelletier said ABC Childcare has been in town for 21 years and decrease in enrollment is significantly hurting their business.
"We've supplied families with good care," he said. "I've supplied the school with a lot of taxes and I don't think it's right to do what you're doing."
Superintendent Jim Behle explained that Just4Kids is a self-sustaining program and that taxes paid by the community go into the K-12 budget, not preschool. Just4Kids is provided through the district's Community Education department, and parents pay tuition to cover the cost of their child's enrollment.
Saville noted that this isn't the first time the group asks the board to look into this. The board rejected the proposal the first time it was presented in 2009.
"We made these same pleas a couple years ago," she said. "Personally, it doesn't affect me because I have an awesome program that's much smaller than a center, but it's just not the government's place to compete with small business."
She added that "just because staff or parents may or may not have asked for the program doesn't mean there's a need for it."
The group also stated that the district has an "unfair disadvantage" when it comes to drawing enrollment.
"You have convenient hours, you guys are cheaper than us because you have a building you don't pay rent for, you don't pay taxes," Nancy Pelletier said. "We've been paying taxes for 21 years."
Even though Behle noted that taxes go to the district and not community education programs, Randy Pelletier said the taxes the community pays does in fact support Just4Kids because it operates in a school building and uses the facility built by the taxpayers. Saville also noted that taxpayers support the custodial compensation, and the custodians clean the Just4Kids room with taxpayer money.
"We're paying taxes to support a program that's driving us out of business," Randy Pelletier said.
Just4Kids started with 20 children, and today serves 70 children. Behle noted that the program does not serve children of all ages in terms of overall competition with other childcare facilities — they do not take infants or toddlers.
"We fiill a unique child care niche — we serve children 4-and-a-half years of age until they go to kindergarten," Behle said. "So there's certainly a large population that we don't intend to serve, nor do we serve. It's not just a childcare, it's a theme-based program that has an educational component."
He added that parents expect choices for where to send their children to preschool, and that they like Just4Kids' "school-like atmosphere" to prepare them for kindergarten.
The St. Michael Catholic School also offers preschool, as does the Monticello and Buffalo school districts.
Behle noted that there are many factors for decreased enrollment in childcare: the fees charged, demographics of the community — less families moving to the area, and the schedule of days and hours of the program. When there are less children at the preschool age, there will be a decrease in enrollment, he explained.
"All of those factors are going to compete, and I think to single out one thing as a factor of the number of registrations is not recognizing some other factors," he said.
He added that Just4Kids does not advertise its program, and that parents enroll their children because the staff have a good reputation.
"Word of mouth gets our biggest registration," he said.
Nancy Pelletier argued that her program also provides a full program of education for preschoolers, including science, math and language.
"You should be bringing business into the community, not pushing them out," she said.
School Board Member Jeffrey Lindquist said that providing the program is simply part of the educational mission of the school district.
"What we're offering is fair competition for the private business community," he said. "The rates we charge are actually higher than what neighboring school districts tend to charge."
Continuing to support the program is also putting resources and facilities at the district to their "highest and best use," he said.
"I think the program is a very good use of our resources," he said. "It generates revenue and is self-sustaining."
He added that he also believes ABC has a great program.
"You strike me as people who can compete with us on an even playing field," he said.
School Board Member Jeanne Holland said although she doesn't know why parents pick the programs that they do, "We didn’t go into this to compete with private business, we went into it because we saw a need."
"And it's a fickle need," she said.
Board Chairman Douglas Birk says he doesn't agree that the district should not be allowed to compete with businesses — he used an anology that the district has a fitness center that competes with private gyms in the community.
"It's a very difficult balancing act," Birk said.
School Board Member Gayle Weber said she completely understands the businesses' point. But the program started because parents asked for it, she said, and that they shouldn't be worried about Just4Kids expanding — she has no interest in expanding the program because of the impact on taxpayers.
"One advantage schools have, is that when families are new to the community, they don't know daycare providers, and they trust that the school is going to do it right," she said. "That's a disadvantage to these (businesses) and that's one advantage the school has. We didn't do anything to gain that advantage, it's just a fact."
If the program did shut down, the 70 families divided by area childcare centers wouldn't be enough to make up for ABC's decrease in enrollment, she added.
"Maybe you'll pick up two or three kids, but there's so much to divide it upon and I'm not sure that two or three kids wouldn't save your business," Weber said.
Although the board did not officially vote or take action on the matter, all board members supported the continuation of the program.
"I'm still supportive of the program. I like that it supports families," said School Board Member Drew Scherber. "If it was shady or not working out, I would say we should change it or think about getting rid of it. But it's a good program."