Penn State

‘Old Main is listening’: Opponents of Penn State plan to outsource child-center management stage protest

Parents upset over Penn State’s plan to outsource the management of the on-campus Bennett Family Child Care Center took their protest Monday to the steps of Old Main, where they hoped to get attention for their plight from the wider university.

The so-called kid-in, or a sit-in with the parents’ children, apparently made some headway toward stopping the plan from taking effect Aug. 19.

President Rodney Erickson popped out of his suite and promised to meet with the parents over the plan that would have Hildebrandt Learning Centers Inc. manage the Bennett Center, said one parent, Zoubeida Ounaies, a mechanical engineering professor.

“He articulated that this is not a done deal,” said Ounaies, whose 4-year-old daughter attends the Bennett Center. “We will keep on doing this for as long as we need to, but we have faith that Old Main is listening.”

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Erickson has the materials that Ounaies delivered, and the president had a meeting later Monday on the issue with Ann Crouter, the dean of the College of Health and Human Development, which oversees the centers.

“We recognize this is an emotion-filled issue and we are sensitive to everyone’s concerns for the care and support of children,” Powers said. “The care and welfare of the children in our centers are top priorities, and the administration is committed to ensuring the best quality of care continues to be provided.”

Hildebrandt already employs most of the workers at the Hort Woods Child Care Center. With the proposed agreement, all the employees there would come under Hildebrandt’s umbrella.

Penn State would pay Hildebrandt an annual fee to manage the Bennett Center. Powers said she expected that figure to be in the ballpark of the fee Penn State pays Hildebrandt for the Hort Woods center, which is $50,000.

The Bennett Center employees will be offered jobs with Hildebrandt, and the parents fear their children’s teachers and aides will search for other jobs because they won’t have Penn State benefits or the tuition discount.

Bill Grant, a spokesman for Hildebrandt, said the two health insurance plans have deductibles of $2,000 and $5,000. Like employers nationwide, Hildebrandt has had to deal with rising health care costs, and the company has worked to keep the monthly insurance premiums affordable, he said.

Powers said the Penn State employees will be offered Hildebrandt jobs at the same salaries. Powers said Hildebrandt has better dental insurance, life insurance and disability benefits compared to Penn State.

The parents, many of whom are on the faculty at Penn State, have also said the move shows the university is considering its child care centers a service rather than part of its academic mission. But Grant said company leaders are “saddened that parents would see our highly qualified and educated staff as anything less than teachers.”

Emily Harrington, an assistant English professor, said her children have had the same teacher at the Bennett Center since 2009. Her husband, statistics professor Debashis Ghosh, said the Bennett Center provides them with “peace of mind” and a safe environment.

Carol McKeever, a retired teacher at the Bennett Center, said she began working there in 2000. She’d had experience in church-based day care centers, but at the Bennett Center, she was offered twice the salary, benefits and vacation time, she said.

The sit-in lasted an hour and drew more than 100 combined parents and children. Organizers handed out cards with their demands, which include scrapping the proposal and the university’s adhering to its child care program policy.

One bullet point in the policy says the university would also pay attention to “issues of good staff morale” as a way of “preventing high staff turnover.”

Powers disputed that the university would do anything outside its policy: “We have professional, educated and well-trained child care staff members in our centers. To suggest that we would allow the quality of child care to slip is not an accurate portrayal at all.”

Penn State officials have said the move to bring in Hildebrandt will streamline logistics, such as scheduling, which will allow the university to focus its resources on the academic side of the center.