The Faculty Senate recently voted to recommend that President David Skorton terminate the University’s contract with Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the current daycare provider for the Cornell Child Care Center, for widespread underperformance.
The special Faculty Senate committee formed in March to review the center’s operations cited an unsustainable budget model, a poor management team unresponsive to parent concerns, a failure to meet New York State regulations, and a high annual turnover in its teaching staff as problems that require immediate University attention.
“Despite good intentions on all sides, these challenges have resulted in many parents deciding to leave the center, a current enrollment at well below capacity, and a declining reputation in the community,” the report said.
The committee provided five recommendations to bring the center up to competitive standards. These include improving the quality of care in a budget-neutral manner; notifying Bright Horizons that Cornell will not extend its two-year contract after it expires in August 2011; releasing a request for new providers by January 1, 2011; creating a seven-member advisory board; and giving the Provost control over several enrollment slots to use in the recruitment and retention of faculty.
In drafting these suggestions, the committee consulted experienced teachers, administrators, attorneys, research on child development and childcare centers, and the Human Resource offices of peer institutions.
The University first opened the daycare on North Campus in 2008 for 48 infants, 50 toddlers, and 56 preschoolers in 15 separate classrooms. Since then, a budget deficit has crippled the center’s operations.
According to the report, the existing model overcompensates top management and fails to staff enough teachers and aides. The report notes that Bright Horizons administrators handled the initial enrollment lottery poorly by promoting “a rigid, cookie-cutter feel, which gives teachers too few opportunities to develop unique identities for their rooms.”
While the facility’s eight-to-two infant-to-teacher ratio is inline with New York State requirements, it does not meet the six to two standard of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, and other local daycare facilities. The center’s long hours mean teachers are overworked, and thus unable prepare intensive applications required for accreditation from National Association for the Education of Young Children, the report said.
Similarly, the center could not provide attendance records or the minimum level of staff development to partake in Ithaca City School District’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program. The program gives daycare services $1,500 per child, opportunities for additional teacher training, and access to online instructional tools.
The report claims the center also lacks teacher’s assistants and does not support its long hours. Thirty-four teachers have quit in the last 22 months — a 56-percent annual turnover rate that has increased each year. By comparison, the Ithaca Montessori School has a 29-percent rate, the Ithaca Drop-In Center a 15-percent rate, and the Ithaca Community Child Care Center a 4.75-percent rate.
Both the committee and parents stressed that the turnover is not the fault of the teachers.
“We were charged to identify how to improve the center,” said Prof. Marianella Casasola, human development, and co-chair of the committee. “I think parents, though, are very supportive of the teachers.”
Additionally, the Center accrued 56 regulatory violations from August 2008 through June 2010, 20 of which the New York State Office of Child and Family Service deemed “serious.” While the committee found that the infringements did not pose imminent harm to the children, the Drop-In Children’s Center received 20 violations over the same period, and the Ithaca Community Child Care Center and Ithaca Montessori School just 11.
Bright Horizons attributed the violations to a “vigorous self-reporting policy,” an explanation most Faculty Senators found unconvincing.
The company, which was founded by Linda Mason ’76 and manages more than 600 centers nationwide, has since improved communication with parents after pressure from Cornell’s Division of Human Resources and a recent University Assembly resolution. But Prof. Stephen Morgan, sociology, and co-chair of the committee, said he, as a client, found the center’s service during its first 17 months unsatisfactory.
“There are definitely caring, loving, devoted teachers,” he said. “But the overall performance was below what we wanted for our children and below our other experiences with childcare in the area.”
Although Bright Horizons and Cornell’s Department of Human Resources have worked to mitigate teaching shortages since April, parents said new hiring has been slow and departures abrupt as well as insufficiently explained.
The center’s continuing decline in enrollment (the facility is now operating at 80 percent capacity) has reduced some strains induced by staffing deficiencies. Competing daycare services, though, have not seen a similar drop in clientele.
The report recommended that the center do away with large management fees and overhead charges, while adopting a sliding-scale tuition in which higher-income families pay a “modest increase in tuition rates.” These new rates would be comparable to other local providers, and most faculty clients said they would support the measure assuming service improves, the report said.
“The ideal outcome is that we’ll have parents and staff who are very happy with the Cornell Child Care Center, which is what everyone wants,” Casasola said.
The report noted that some of the center’s shortcomings are the fault of the University. Cornell opened the daycare on a failing budget model without sufficient input from parents and faculty with relevant expertise, the report said. It failed to resolve issues quickly, and often rejected the suggestions of the Center’s Parent’s Advisory Committee.
The report recommended a bidding process for a new daycare service provider that includes the contribution of parents, and mandates the creation of a seven-member advisory board.
The report notes that the advisory board would consist of four faculty members — two with expertise in child development and two in management — and three nonacademic members. Led by a senior academic administrator, it would release annual reviews of the center, conduct anonymous surveys of parents and staff, and “cultivate direct channels of communication with parents of children at the center as well as teachers.”
The Faculty Senate has asked President David Skorton to reach a decision by Nov. 1. If the University decides not to extend its contract with Bright Horizons, it would provide the company with at least a 180-day warning.
“There’s nothing that would preclude Bright Horizons from competing and receiving the bid in becoming the child care provider, assuming they could meet new guidelines for the center,” Morgan said.
After choosing a new provider, however, Cornell must pay off any of the center’s operational deficits. Mary Opperman, vice president of human resources, said that Skorton has only just begun reviewing the Senate’s recommendations. He will then evaluate a report submitted by the Department of Human Resources.
“We’re still in the process of gathering information,” Opperman said. “We’ve talked to parents and teachers, but there’s a lot to go through.”