Our View | Bennett Center debate not about transparency

July 3, 2013 

While we applaud Penn State President Rodney Erickson’s willingness to meet with concerned parents about changes at an on-campus children’s center, we don’t see this as an “openness” or “transparency” issue.

Penn State recently made a budgetary decision to outsource management of the Bennett Family Child Care Center. That move would put the center’s day-to-day operations under Hildebrandt Learning Centers Inc., a Luzerne County-based private entity already running the university’s Child Care Center at Hort Woods.

Parents whose children attend the Bennett Center certainly have every right to take issue with the decision. As we’ve said many times, more parents should get involved with the decisions that affect their children.

While we support greater openness at Penn State and at all organizations that benefit from our tax dollars, we don’t think the university should be expected to seek public approval for every decision that comes along.

Frankly, we find it refreshing that the institution would move toward increased efficiency, even as it strives to maintain the quality of the Bennett Center’s programs.

“Management of the operational side is Hildebrandt’s specialty and not ours,” said Ann Crouter, dean of the College of Health and Human Development, which would continue high-level oversight of the Bennett Family Center and Hort Woods.

In a letter to the board of trustees published Sunday in this newspaper, Bennett Center parents said they were “stunned” that Penn State didn’t consult with parents before making this decision.

They argued that the university’s process ran contrary to Erickson’s “new ethos of transparency” and expressed shock that the university would pay Hildebrandt $50,000 annually for its management of the center.

Penn State pays Hildebrandt that amount to manage Hort Woods, and officials said the fee at Bennett would be comparable.

Although transparency remains a work in progress at Penn State, not every decision would demand advance approval from any and all who might be affected.

Hildebrandt’s operation of Hort Woods seems to be going smoothly. We’ve encountered nary a whimper of discontent from moms and dads whose children spend their days there, although the Bennett parents say they’ve heard of staff turnover and other potential issues.

Turnover seems to be a fear for the Bennett Center parents. They voiced concern that private control could mean reduced benefits and other concessions for staff, which could prompt some to seek work elsewhere.

The college has expressed a willingness to look at those questions.

Latest figures show 163 children enrolled at Hort Woods and 135 at the Bennett Center, which has 33 full-time employees.

And while we would hope that all workers might see their benefits remain steady, even improve, we know that many organizations — private and public — have been forced to make difficult decisions in recent years.

Universities have historically been isolated from those realities, but no more.

If parents don’t sway Penn State from its announced course, Hildebrandt would assume control of the Bennett center Aug. 19.

Penn State does have the obligation to make sure that whichever course is chosen meets its goals and expectations over time, in terms of programs as well as costs.

Erickson visited briefly with parents who staged a sit-in protest Monday at Old Main and indicated a willingness to meet with the affected families for further discussion.

That was a generous gesture, and means the door is not closed on parents’ concerns.

But did Penn State violate its own openness pledge in making a decision about the Bennett Family Center without consulting parents in advance? No, it did not.

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