Task force urges Penn State president to delay private takeover of Bennett Family Center

mdawson@centredaily.comJanuary 27, 2014 

Bennett2

The Bennett Family Child Care Center on the Penn State University campus, June 26, 2013.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT photo Buy Photo

  • KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

    •  Continue providing leadership in early childhood education through research, teaching and service, and consider establishing scholars in residence at the on-campus child care centers.

    •  Encourage on-campus centers to expand their hours and have flexible scheduling.

    •  Explore ways to offset the cost of child care for students who are parents.

    •  Fill the position of director of child care program services and evaluate whether the programs should be overseen by the Office of Human Resources or the College of Health and Human Development.

    •  Establish a child care executive committee and an advisory committee, as outlined in a human resources policy.

— Penn State faculty and staff tasked with studying child care at the university are recommending a delay in launching a plan to outsource the management of a beloved on-campus child care center until more information can be collected.

The child care task force, led by administrator Jacqueline Edmondson, said the university president needs to make a decision quickly because of lingering uncertainty at the Bennett Family Center over whether its future is with Penn State or an outside company, Hildebrandt Learning Center. The task force also supported the need for high-quality child care and education, including competitive pay and benefits for teachers, which they say the Bennett Center has.

The recommendation was one of several contained in a report by the child care task force to President Rodney Erickson. The task force was directed to study programs at Penn State after an uproar from parents over the decision to outsource staffing of the Bennett Center.

The report says the university should work now through the end of Hildebrandt’s contract with another campus facility, The Child Care Center at Hort Woods, to collect more information to make the best decisions for the Bennett Center.

“When it came to Bennett and Hort Woods, we had some evidence to work from, but many questions and areas where we felt the data was incomplete or nonexistent,” Edmondson said. “There are really wonderful teachers and directors at both centers and really positive things happening at both, but also areas at both centers that need some attention. This is why the task force supported the idea that the next two years really needed to be a time for more strategic data collection, assessment and evaluation.”

The task force called on Erickson to decide quickly, but the president had not yet said which direction he would go.

“We will carefully review these findings and recommendations, along with feedback from the Faculty Senate, to determine the best course of action now and in the long-term,” Erickson said in a statement. “It is clear that we want to remain a leader in early childhood education and continue to meet the demand for high-quality child care.”

Additional recommendations in the report include re-establishing a campuswide child care services director, a position that was not filled when it became vacant in 2011.

University spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the proposal calls for a full-time director, whereas it was previously not a person’s main responsibility.

In addition, the task force recommends putting the Office of Human Resources in charge of child care services and removing it from the umbrella of the College of Health and Human Development.

The recommendations also call for extended and flexible hours of operation to accommodate parents’ child care needs, and for exploring ways to make child care more affordable, especially to students who are parents.

The task force, which has 15 members, arrived at the recommendations using responses from a survey, feedback from the university community and face-to-face discussions with parents at several campuses. More than 8,700 people took the survey, and of those who responded, nearly 1,500 were people who have children in the age range that the Bennett Center serves, up to kindergarten.

Bennett Center parent Emily Harrington said she was pleased with the recommendations about the center, as she believes they are in line with what she and fellow parents had been lobbying for since the summer. In addition, she said she hopes quality of education at the center is the standard and not the exception.

“The task force comes out strongly in favor of early childhood education as an investment well worth making, and I am hopeful that the administrators who make the final decision will agree,” Harrington said.

Penn State’s plan was to have Hildebrandt Inc. take over running the Bennett Center as a way to streamline efficiency and save money. The company had already taken over running the Hort Woods center.

That plan would have had the 33 teachers at the Bennett Center transition to jobs at Hildebrandt and subsequently lose their university salaries and benefits, such as as the tuition discount. A few Hort Woods teachers would have been affected by this, too, as they had been transferred there from the Child Development Lab and remained Penn State employees.

Bennett Center parents revolted, saying they feared the teachers there would leave if they lost Penn State benefits. The parents said staff turnover would be disruptive to their children’s experience at the center, and they feared the educational philosophy would change.

The report said three teachers at the Bennett Center have gotten other jobs in the university out of fear they would have to give up their Penn State perks.

Edmondson said the most reasonable option is to continue with the status quo until more data are collected.

For instance, the university could see whether Hildebrandt could make salaries and benefits of its employees at Hort Woods on par with salaries and benefits for Penn State employees at the Bennett Center. In addition, leaders at both centers should look at offering evening and weekend hours and a calendar that is aligned with the university and local school districts, Edmondson said.

The centers could also look at other intricacies, such as coordinating food and supply orders and developing a uniform system for reporting budgets instead of the two different versions that they have now, the task force said.

Hildebrandt CEO Bill Grant said the same salaries could be possible, and he said that direction would have to come from the university. Nevertheless, he stressed his company provides a high quality education.

“We really wanted to make the Hort Woods center and Bennett Center beacons in the country that people could look at and say these are really high quality centers,” he said.

Penn State currently pays Hildebrandt a $50,000 management fee for Hort Woods; that same arrangement was proposed for the Bennett Center.

According to financial figures included in the report, the Bennett Center finished out the 2012-2013 fiscal year with a deficit of $337,115. It had $1.7 million in expenses, including $1 million in salaries, but $1.36 million in income.

Hort Woods had a similar deficit in fiscal 2013, too — $342,698. It had income of $1.7 million but expenses of more than $2 million.

Nan Crouter, the dean of the College of Health and Human Development, said excellence in child care often requires some level of subsidy for universities. She said the Hort Woods deficit is covered by central administration.

“If the college continues to run the center for the next two years, we would continue to work with Bennett leadership to look for efficiencies, and we would continue to absorb any shortfall that arises,” Crouter said. “If the decision is made to centralize everything and move the oversight of the child care centers to HR, I hope that our college will have an opportunity to continue to stay involved and to play a very supportive role.”

Edmondson said people can email her comments on the report at jxe117@psu.edu.

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