Is an asset takeover the only way to assist struggling independent Pre-K childcare providers?

Dear Editor:

At a recent Early Learning Coalition (ELC) board meeting, R’Club announced the imminent takeover of Happy Workers Learning Center, Inc. in south St. Petersburg.  This action presumably comes after many years of licensing violations by Happy Workers, which no one can deny, and threatened contract termination action by the ELC.

However, this action raises questions about how the community should address the broader question of similarly struggling Pre-K childcare providers serving the most underserved sections of our communities, not just in south St. Petersburg, but in Pinellas County.  Is taking over struggling providers the solution?

There is no question that many of these providers lack sufficient resources to provide high-quality Pre-K childcare experiences, such as those mandated by the Office of Head Start through federal regulations.  It is also true that R’Club is a partner (sub-contractor) with Lutheran Services Florida, Inc. (LSF – the grantee), in administering the Head Start and Early Head Start Grant in Pinellas County, which serves approximately 1,600 children.

LSF offered to provide technical training and assistance, and apparently Happy Workers chose to pursue the asset takeover reported by R’Club.  However, the highly visible and talked about Happy Workers situation leaves many questions unanswered.

Is the transfer of assets from this historical community controlled entity the only solution?  What is the value of the assets to be transferred versus the assumption of debts promised by R’Club?  What additional investment would be required of R’Club to “turn” Happy Workers around and how much time would this “turnaround” require?

There are many other questions that have not been answered, that should be answered by the Happy Workers board, and this should be done in a transparent public fashion.  Moreover, there are also questions for ELC and Licensing. For example, would an asset takeover by R’Club wipe the history of violations clean (as Happy Workers did before), although Happy Workers would continue to exist in name only?

The Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, Inc. (COQEBS) has long recognized the value of high-quality Pre-K experience and its effect on closing the achievement gap.  This relationship is one reason for COQEBS only standing committee – School Readiness.  This realization, of course, does not relieve the school district of its responsibility for closing the achievement gap in the K-12 system.  The real challenge as a community is how do we do both?

COQEBS has advocated for a solution that attempts to preserve and strengthen these providers, so that they may continue to be viable and sustainable assets in the community.  Is a takeover the right answer?

Dr. Davis is also a member of LSF’s Children Services, Statewide Executive Team.

Dr. Ricardo A. Davis, President, COQEBS

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