Preschool In Peril

Nonprofit Cooperative School Faces Closure After 34 Years


Shoppers browse for bargains at the Community Preschool record sale

July 18 at Jose’s Streetside. Community Preschool parents organized

the sale to help raise money for the school.

By D.R. Bartlette

Photos by Kirk Lanier

The Community Preschool has been educating and caring for kids — many of whom are low-income — for more than 30 years. Now, with a $10,000 shortfall, a staff in “revolt” and most of the board of directors resigning, it may have to shut its doors.

The Community Preschool at 1502 N. Leverett Ave. in Fayetteville was established in 1975 by a group of parents whose children had grown too old for the University of Arkansas Infant Development Center. Because they were unable to find any existing day care centers that had the characteristics they were looking for, they decided to start their own preschool, which is now a nonprofit cooperative that serves about 20 students.

Shannon Price said her child has been attending the school for a year and a half.

“I loved that it was small, they had a cook making healthy meals and the play yard out back was fabulous. I also liked that the parents had to be involved in the school.”

Charlotte Taylor, director of development for the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the UA, had two children attend the school.

“I feel they had an amazing education there … the combination of a structured, fun educational environment, a creative playground, healthy food and caring teachers was amazing,” Taylor said.  She said her children seem to continue to do “exceptionally well” in school.

But recently the school has run into problems. According to both Misty Gittings, who resigned last week from the school’s board of directors, and Tarah Ledbetter, the school’s treasurer, who also resigned last week, the previous management let the Workers Compensation Insurance and hazard insurance policies lapse. Then, according to Gittings, one of the staff teachers fell in the storage garage, tripping over a child’s tricycle and hitting her head on the concrete floor.


Community Preschool parent and former board member

Misty Gittings sorts albums for a school fundraiser.

Without Worker’s Compensation Insurance, the teacher’s medical bills became the responsibility of the school. These bills represent about five-eighths of the $10,000 the school needs, Ledbetter said. The other three-eighths is for operating expenses.

According to Gittings, the school was going to be $1,500 short of being able to make its July 24 payroll. “We have depleted our fundraising and savings accounts [because of] the significant decrease in enrollment and significant increase in expenses,” she said.

She said one of the reasons behind the increase in expenses is the “unworkable situation” in the school’s government-pay vs. self-pay student ratio. More than half of Community Preschool’s students have their tuition paid by the government in one of two ways: with a voucher or through an Arkansas Better Chance grant.

Ledbetter explained that the voucher system is for families whose income is 60 percent or less of the state’s median income. There is usually a long waiting list for the aid. Once the parents are approved as recipients, there are only certain schools that will accept the vouchers. It is likely that only a few schools accept the vouchers because the vouchers pay only a set rate for any school, regardless of the tuition costs at that particular school, Ledbetter said.

The ABC grant provides tuition assistance to families whose income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

A 2005 study by the National Institute for Early Education Research showed that the ABC grant provided students with many benefits, including better vocabulary, math and reading skills.

According to the NIEER Web site, a large body of research shows that high-quality preschool programs can lead to increases in school success, higher test scores, fewer school drop-outs, higher graduation rates, less special education and even lower crime rates.

“I was one of those low-income parents trying to make it through college and finding the Community Preschool was a blessing,” said Denise Rohr, whose 8-year-old son is a former student. She says the teachers and parents were “an amazing group” and she feels “lucky to have been a part of it.”

However, the ABC program has its disadvantages for the school.

According to Gittings, the school is not legally allowed to ask the ABC parents to work at the school or pay any additional money.

“But Community is a nonprofit, parent-cooperative preschool, with a focus on ‘cooperative,’” Gittings said. “The parents are expected to pitch in and work so that we can make the school run financially. That means volunteering to clean at the school occasionally, or mowing the lawn or volunteering to help out when an aide is sick. It saves so much money when we all come together, which is why historically Community has been able to keep its tuition so much lower than comparable schools.”

Ledbetter said there is a ton of paperwork that must be completed monthly, quarterly and annually to keep the grant and there are a lot of additional regulations that the school must follow.

“But most importantly it has caused a financial burden on our school because we have been required to increase many teachers’ salaries, provide them benefits and purchase new equipment, along with other things,” Ledbetter said.

Gittings said that the ABC grant only pays 60 percent of the money needed per student.

“It’s not designed for a school this small,” Gittings said. “You can’t be in the hole 40 percent every month. While we love providing a quality education and nurturing environment to these students, it is not financially feasible to continue operating with this ratio.”

Rohr says it would be “disturbing” if the preschool were forced into a position to stop taking vouchers and ABC kids.

“Community Preschool has an opportunity to care for children that wouldn’t normally have access to a rich learning environment (because of) price constraints,” Rohr said.

Last week, the board voted to discontinue taking Arkansas Better Chance students. According to Gittings, board members were met by “several angry parents and a revolting staff.” She said that she and all but one of the board members had resigned and “cut ties” with the school in order to allow the staff and other parents to try to maintain the ABC program.

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