WINCHESTER — It was an emotional evening for many at the Umpqua Community College Board of Education meeting Wednesday.
More than 50 people attended the meeting to hear the first reading of the college’s plan to close the Ford Childhood Enrichment Center, a childcare facility at the college. Several people had to stand against the walls because no seats were available.
UCC administrators have recommended the closure of the center, which has served as a resource to the community since 1994 in an area where childcare facilities are sparse. The center cares for children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, but it also serves an educational purpose on campus as a practicum site for students.
Administrators have requested board approval of the plan before closing the center. The board will hold a second reading and make a decision on the plan at its meeting in March.
“This is not a recommendation to the board that is being made lightly,” said UCC President Debra Thatcher in a statement Wednesday. The center’s operational costs have exceeded its revenues for several years, according to the statement.
More than 10 students, faculty, staff, center employees and other community members spoke out against the plan during the public comment period of the meeting. They shared stories about the vital role the center has played in their lives and urged the board to work with administrators to find a way to keep the center open. Speakers tried — and some failed — to fight back tears while they made their pleas to board members, who took notes and audio recorded the comments.
Nicole Cox, a microbiology student at UCC, told the board she wouldn’t be able to continue studying at the college if the center closed. She takes her daughter there while she’s at school.
She wouldn’t be able to afford other childcare options in the area, she said. A full day at the center costs UCC students almost $32 for each preschool-age child.
Although Cox would be personally affected, she used her time to tell the board about the effect closing the center would have on the community overall.
“The ultimate thing that is important that we need to take away from this is the trickle down effect closing this down would have on our community,” Cox said.
She said women who receive services from Battered Persons Advocacy use the center for their kids.
“Because of that center, they are able to have somewhere to have their children be safe, which is big for someone coming out of a violent situation,” Cox said. “They are able to go to school and not have to worry about that, and then in turn become vital citizens in our community.”
She said students who use the center are “nurses, dental assistants and EMTs.” Many of them couldn’t be there to speak because they were working, she said.
Cox also pointed out the quality of care her daughter gets at the center.
“You’re hitting two generations at once by having that there,” Cox said. “You have me, who is going to go out into the workforce, and you have my child, who is learning sign language and she’s learning social skills.”
“I’m so nervous and I apologize if I’m a little shaky,” Cox said.
When she finished, Steve Loosley, chair of the board, thanked Cox for speaking.
“You might have been nervous, but you made some really good points,” Loosley said.
Several speakers told the board that closing the center would have adverse effects on enrollment and staffing, which may lead to more financial problems.
Nick Thomas, student body vice president, said he frequently speaks with prospective students. Two of the things potential students ask about most is housing and childcare, he said.
“It’s really important to people to know that there is childcare on campus,” Thomas said. “This is the most packed I’ve ever seen this room for one of these meetings, so it’s important to the community.”
Other speakers urged the board to work with administrators to find community partners interested in supporting the center.
Max Gimbel, associate director of The Ford Institute for Community Building, said his organization is willing to be one of those partners.
Gimbel said the foundation has conducted child education research in the area, and that research shows closing the center would be another blow to already scarce childcare resources in the area.
“You probably know this, but we’re at crisis level for infant care and we’re at a critical level for childcare in general,” Gimbel said.
In Douglas County, there are 14 childcare slots per 100 for children age 2 and older, according to data referenced by Gimbel. The recommended number is 25 per 100.
Loosley asked Gimbel to send the board that research to show administrators.
He thanked speakers again before closing the public comment period. He said the board would go to administrators and ask them “to take all of today’s facts and testimony into consideration.”