UNIVERSITY PARK — Parents up in arms about Penn State’s decision to outsource management of a campus child care center lashed out at the university Thursday, saying the move is void of the transparency that administrators have promised over the past year and a half.
The parents whose children attend the Bennett Family Center are asking the university to ditch the plan that would have Hildebrandt Learning Centers take over the Bennett’s business operations effective Aug. 19.
The university said the rationale behind the move is to streamline efficiency by allowing the private company to handle business operations, such as scheduling, but dozens of parents are upset they were just notified of the decision this week without being asked for input much earlier.
“Given that one of Rodney Erickson’s first public acts as president of Penn State was to promise a new ethos of transparency at this university, we find this lack of prior consultation shocking,” said parent and professor Sarah Rich at a meeting Thursday with Ann Crouter, the dean of the College of Health and Human Development, which oversees the Bennett Center. “At a time when the world continues to watch Penn State for signs of its authentic commitment to children, now is a terrible time for the university to look like it is abdicating its responsibility.”
Rich was among a crowd of more than 80 parents who came Thursday to what was the second meeting on the Hildebrandt takeover. The university’s announcement about the change was made on Tuesday, and the first informational meeting was Wednesday.
As a result of the move, teachers and staff at Bennett will be offered jobs with Hildebrandt at their current salaries, Crouter said Thursday. But they would lose their Penn State benefits, such as their tuition discount and health care, which are major sticking points for the parents who want the employees to retain the benefits.
Crouter said she is studying ways to make the employer contribution for health care benefits more generous and offer a discount to employees who use the Bennett Center for their child care. Crouter said she has meetings in Old Main next week about the issue, but she was unsure when she would have answers to the parents’ questions.
The university has not signed its contract with Hildebrandt, and Crouter said there is no immediate time frame for the transaction to be finalized. She also said she is not one of the people who will sign the contract.
Hildebrandt already manages the Hort Woods child care center on campus, and that contract is worth about $50,000, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said this week. She expected Penn State to pay Hildebrandt a similar amount to manage the Bennett center.
The torrential rain Thursday did not keep the parents, many of whom wore red save-the-Bennett Center T-shirts, from attending the meeting, which was at times tense. Parents were quick to snicker at Crouter, such as when she said they should not see the move as “corporate child care.”
The parents, many of whom are Penn State faculty members, argue the decision shows Penn State considers the Bennett Center a child care service and not an educational initiative in line with the university’s academic mission. The parents say their children will suffer because the teachers, who will pay more for health care with Hildebrandt and lose their tuition discount, will look for new jobs.
“We don’t want a high turnover of caretakers,” Rich said. “We don’t want caretakers who are busy looking for other, better paying positions elsewhere. We want highly qualified caretakers who are attracted to and make long-term commitments to this facility because they know that they will be treated like the professionals they are.”
Crouter, who repeatedly said she was listening to the parents’ concerns, said after the meeting that the parents were not consulted before the decision was finalized. She said this decision was not one that required their input.
Three faculty members from the College of Education said they would like to be a part of conversations to keep the Bennett Center at the status quo. Professor Gail Bolt said the proposed move was an example of how teachers across the country are being degraded.
Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.