The District 200 school board is at a crossroads when it comes to the Huskie Pups daycare at Oak Park and River Forest High School after administrators recently revealed that the program could lose its license to operate in its current space if an estimated $750,000 worth of renovations aren’t completed within a year.
The news prompted board members to question whether it’s feasible to even continue operating the program in its current form.
During a presentation during the board’s committee of the whole on Dec. 10, Mike Carioscio, D200’s chief operations officer, and Josh Czerniak, of FGM Architects, said that the last Department of Children and Family Services licensing inspection found numerous fire code violations within the daycare space.
“We feel very strongly that unless we remediate these issues, we’re pretty confident licensing will not be granted,” Carioscio said, adding that the next licensing period is in September 2020.
The Huskie Pups daycare is a full-day early childhood program run by the River Forest Community Center and available to faculty and staff at all three public school districts in the Oak Park and River Forest area, OPRF students and the public.
The program takes children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old, according to its website. The cost to each child ranges from $250 a week to $305 a week, depending on the child’s age.
At the Dec. 10 meeting, Czerniak said the daycare space has two main structural problems that the $750,000 renovation would rectify. First, the daycare has a mezzanine, and the various levels impede movement and make entering and exiting the space difficult. Secondly, the daycare space is bisected by a corridor, which high school students use to access the auto shop.
“That corridor was the major violation cited by the fire marshal,” Czerniak said. “And the violation is that there isn’t a second exit out of the Huskie Pups spaces to the south of that corridor. Theoretically, in an emergency, those occupants would be exiting through auto shop. The fire code doesn’t allow exits through another space.”
Czerniak said most of the costs involved in the renovation are related to installing another entrance and exit point for the daycare in the form of a ramp and staircase on the north end of OPRF’s main building, and removing the mezzanine so the entire interior daycare space is on one level.
Carioscio and Czerniak explained in a memo that, since work would need to be completed before the September 2020 licensing period, the “most practical and cost-effective solution is to include renovation of the Huskie Pup toddler space in this summer’s capital improvement work.”
Czerniak added that “the cost would be more significant to move Huskie Pups out of its current area,” because that would mean likely having to renovate another space to accommodate whatever programming would be displaced by the daycare.
Most D200 board members, however, expressed concerns with the Huskie Pups program that went beyond the need for capital repairs.
“I feel like the fire code violations seem like they’re out of the blue,” said school board member Gina Harris. “It feels like it’s something that would’ve been known, that these violations exist and these changes have to happen next year.”
Dick Chappell, the director of the River Forest Community Center, told board members that the daycare’s current physical layout has existed unchanged since the center started operating the daycare in 2007. He added that the most recent DCFS licensing report was the only one in which fire code violations were found.
Other board members questioned the wisdom of spending $750,000 on a daycare that, according to Chappell, only includes the children of adults. Chappell said that staffers at OPRF, District 90 in River Forest and District 97 in Oak Park, along with residents of Oak Park and River Forest “make up 100 percent of our participants.”
Chappell said that, while the daycare was originally created to ensure that OPRF students with children stay in school, the number of students with children who are enrolled in Huskie Pups has dwindled to zero in the last few years. He also said that last year, the daycare serviced people who were not residents of Oak Park and River Forest.
“My ask would be to understand the business model,” said board member Tom Cofsky. “What is it? As I see it, quite frankly, we have a daycare for our staff, which is a benefit, but call it what it is, and it also looks like a daycare for community residents. We need to understand the business model and then we can have a discussion.”
Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said the administration has had preliminary talks with Chappell, about possibly sharing the costs of the renovation. Pruitt-Adams said the community center receives all of the revenue generated by Huskie Pups and pays the salaries of the daycare’s employees.
Pruitt-Adams cautioned that other dominoes could fall if the board decided to discontinue housing the daycare at OPRF.
“If we decided not to do it here, we have another year on our agreement,” she said. “It was historically three years and several years ago we made it four, with the option that if [either the community center or OPRF] got out of it, we had to give a year’s notice.”
The superintendent added that, if the school board opts to discontinue the daycare and the community center decides to continue operating the program elsewhere, such as at its main facility in River Forest, “there could be a potential impact on [OPRF],” because the community center houses the high school’s program for 18- to 22-year-old students with disabilities who are transitioning into adulthood.
“We realize where we are in terms of performance and finances,” said Pruitt-Adams. “However, we also know as a board we vowed commitment to early childhood education … We’d be remiss if we did not bring [the proposal for renovations] to the board.”
District 200 board President Jackie Moore urged administrators to provide more information about the daycare, including how they would pay for the $750,000 renovation and a “post-mortem of this to understand how it took this long for [the fire code violations and other issues related to the daycare] to come before the board.”
Administrators indicated that they may have the information the board requested by no later than February.