Officials at Umpqua Community College say they are gathering information on how to keep the Ford Childhood Enrichment Center open.

Multiple entities have shown interest in taking over the Ford Childhood Enrichment Center, but officials at Umpqua Community College say any talk of potential partnerships is premature.

“Right now, the college is focused on gathering information to present to the board at its next meeting,” Umpqua spokesperson Tiffany Coleman said in an email Friday. “The college is currently following through on its fact-finding promise to the board of education. The college is searching for a way to keep the center open. We are working with a consultant starting next week.”

Michael Lasher, the superintendent of the Douglas Education Service District, said at Thursday’s board meeting that the district is one of the entities interested in helping keep the facility open.

“(UCC is) sort of engaged in their own process and not looking beyond their campus too much,” Lasher said. “I mean, they may be, but we haven’t been involved in the conversation, so we’re trying to open up the conversation to a larger group of folks.”

Lasher later clarified that The Ford Family Foundation is hoping to convene a group of people who can help keep the center open.

“I don’t know how broad they are thinking, but I’m sure the ESD will be invited,” Lasher said in an email Monday. “In the short term, we’ll probably talk to Ford about which groups to invite to the convening, who should facilitate the meeting, that sort of housekeeping. It’s not really our show, but we’re happy to try to move it along.

“Along with the rest of the folks who have an interest in early learning in our county, none of us wish to see the child care center at UCC close,” he continued. “My experience (is) that if one starts talking about a potential problem early, it’s possible to steer a course that avoids the problem altogether. Douglas ESD would like to do our part to see if there is something the community can do collectively to make sure those childcare options don’t disappear.”

Representatives from the Ford Family Foundation did not respond to a phone call or email asking for the foundation’s plans for the facility and whether they had been contacted by the college before the proposed closure of the child care center.

Coleman said that although the college is searching for a way to keep the center open as a child care facility, the other entities expressing interest have been education-related but not specifically child care facilities.

“No other entities are interested in running a child care center as a service to our students, employees and community,” Coleman wrote in an email Monday. “They have expressed interest in using the space as an educational facility for their own purposes.”

Coleman said the college cannot work with any outside entities without board approval. The college also cannot close the center without approval from its board of education.

If the college can’t keep the center open, a recommendation will be made to the board to send out a request for proposal so another entity can take over.

The next UCC board meeting is scheduled for April 10, when the board is expected to receive information on the financials and other requested information regarding the Ford Childhood Enrichment Center.

“As you know, we have a dearth of childcare options in Douglas County,” Lasher wrote. “If it could stay open and even expand its hours, it would be of more benefit to more people.”

More than 50 people were in attendance for the Feb. 13 board meeting when college administrators held a first reading on a plan to close the child care facility. Several of those people spoke up against the closing during the meeting’s public comment period.

An online petition has been signed by 265 supporters to stop the closure of the center.

“Without (the center), there will be many good, hard-working people without their jobs, parent-students unable to attend classes on campus, and the children enrolled would lose their place of learning, friendships, and communication,” the petition reads.

According to a statement by UCC President Debra Thatcher, the operational costs have exceeded revenues for several years at the child care center. Annually, the childcare center costs the college $145,000.

During the February meeting, Thatcher said the college had “reached out to different entities and no one is interested in running child care,” according to the minutes of the meeting. Thatcher said she would continue to reach out and explore other grants and possibilities.

Lasher said Douglas ESD approached the college in the fall to see if they could use a room for an Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education classroom, but he did not recall a discussion on taking over operating the child care center.

Douglas ESD has since opened its new special education classroom at Yoncalla High School.

Max Gimbel, the associate director of The Ford Institute for Community Building, was in attendance for the February meeting and said his organization would be willing to be a partner. He added that research showed closing the center would be another blow to already scarce childcare resources in the area.

The college’s board was expected to have a second reading during its March board meeting, but at the time Thatcher said more data needed to be gathered.

The Ford Childhood Enrichment Center opened in 1994 and cares for children ranging in ages from 6 months to 5 years old. It also serves as an educational space for college students. During winter term, which ended March 23, 19 college students enrolled their children in the child care center for a total of 24 children.

The college’s student newspaper, The Mainstream, quoted a statement from Provost Kasey Crabtree which was sent to staff that said: “UCC is an academic institution; we are in the business of delivering quality academic programs and related services and do not have the expertise or resources to manage the day-to-day operations of a childcare center and related liabilities.

“Plans are underway to revamp the Early Childhood Education program and move it online.”

Sanne Godfrey can be reached at sgodfrey@nrtoday.com or 541-957-4203. Follow her on Twitter @sannegodfrey.

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Education Reporter

Sanne Godfrey is the education reporter for The News-Review.

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