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Everett Community College pauses on changes to Early Learning Center after parents voice concern

The college wants to contract services with the YMCA to save money.

EVERETT, Wash — Everett Community College's Early Learning Center is no run-of-the-mill daycare. Many of the teachers have college degrees. 

The children aren't just babysat, they're taught a curriculum -- often in a different language -- and the facility is affordable for mothers such as Tamara Heng, also a student at the college.

That's why the news she received just before Thanksgiving shook her so badly.

"It was sheer panic, honestly," she said. "It was very stressful."

Last week, Tamara got a letter from the college saying it "made the difficult decision to close the Early Learning Center." The letter, dated two days before Thanksgiving, stated, "the program is not financially sustainable."

On Tuesday, Nov. 30, the college sent a letter saying that it would "temporarily pause any action on program closure at this time." That, college leadership said, would give them the opportunity to evaluate the possibility of a more permanent source of funding for the program.

Tamara said her family simply can't afford a closure to happen.

"My husband and I are both students," Tamara said. "One of us would probably have to stop school. Physically there's just no way we could afford $800 to $1,000 a month child care."

Prior to the pandemic, the center served 120 children and employed 40 people. Those numbers have been slashed by two-thirds, but Tamara said children continue to thrive.

"What they offer here is amazing," she said. "It's allowing us to plan a future for ourselves."

The center also serves as a training ground for Everett Community College students studying teaching or nursing.

However, outgoing Everett Community College President Daria Wills lamented the ELC has fallen more than $700,000 in the red.

Wills is leaving the school at the end of the year to take a similar position on the East Coast.

"I support early childhood learning," she said. "This is a really tough one but we have data over the last five years that shows we've been losing revenue and resources."

Washington state is already struggling with a child care crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19. A recent study by Lending Tree found costs up 55% in Washington, rising to more than $18,000 per year.

Everett City Councilmember-elect Paula Rhyne said a closure would mean more parents would have to stay home, having a snowball effect.

"The compounding effect of their lifelong earnings is impacted because they're not staying in the workforce, not being promoted at the regular pace and just missing out on opportunities," Rhyne said.

Rhyne believes the City of Everett has federal pandemic relief money it can spend that could keep the center open, as is.

The college previously said it wants to contract with the local YMCA for services.

Kelly Shepherd serves as the chair of the Everett YMCA board of directors. She also serves on the board of Everett Community College.

"There is a huge conflict of interest," said Stephanie Doyle, a union representative for teachers at the ELC. 

President Wills said the savings would be used to help fund a "one stop" support shop to aid in student enrollment and retention. Students would be able to register for classes, speak with advisors, and explore financial aid under one roof.

When asked about a potential conflict of interest, President Wills said, "Kelly hasn't made any decisions. She is one member of the board makes up one voice. The board hasn't voted on this issue. Kelly has done her due diligence to recuse herself from conversations when necessary."

Shepherd released the following statement: 

"In my community roles as an Everett Community College Trustee and Board Chair of the Everett Y branch, I am acutely aware of the potential perception of a conflict regarding discussions over the EvCC Early Learning Center. That is why in meetings with each organization, I have openly acknowledged that potential and stated my commitment to recuse myself from any vote regarding this issue, even though any decisions are likely to be made at the staff level and won’t require a vote of either board. It’s important to note that I had no knowledge of any negotiations regarding the ELC prior to joining the EvCC Board of Trustees in October of this year."

If the plan ends up moving forward, the YMCA would take over the Child Care Center at the end of June 2022. 

If the college moves ahead with the partnership, parents worry about keeping experienced, union-wage staff and maintaining the level of quality education.

"All we're trying to do is make a better life for our kids," Heng said.