NEW: Despite pleas from parents, PBSC closing its Gardens preschool

11:25 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018 Local
Kathryn Rossmell speaks during a Palm Beach State College district board of trustees meeting Tuesday, November 14, 2017 on the school’s Boca Raton campus. Rossmell, whose 1.5 year-old son Ethan attends the school’s Early Learning Center, came out with other parents to push the District Board of Trustees to keep the Center open. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Palm Beach State College will close a preschool on its Gardens campus and convert it into office space, despite pleas from parents who offered to pay higher tuition to keep the school open.

RELATED: Parents persuade college to postpone closing beloved Gardens school

Late last year, President Ava Parker told parents she planned to close the Center for Early Learning on RCA Boulevard in June because the college lost $1 million in state money. Parents packed a trustee meeting in Boca Raton, and the college paused plans to close the school for 80 students.

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Parents made a business plan to close a $216,000 shortfall — including paying $50 more per child per week in tuition — and presented it to college’s administration.

But when they came out in force again at a trustee meeting in Lake Worth on Tuesday, a new wrinkle emerged: the college needs the preschool for offices.

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The college will spend $750,000 to $1 million to convert the preschool into offices for employees who don’t work directly with students, such as information technology or finance, said Richard Becker, the college’s vice president of administration and business services.

Those employees are housed at the Lake Worth campus, which is so short on real estate that the college is considering leasing off-campus space, Becker said.

“This will help us tremendously by being able to put them there,” Becker said of the Gardens offices. “We continue to grow. The only way we get new offices is to build new buildings.”

Trustee Wendy Link asked if the parents would be interested in operating the preschool on their own if they could find a new location and the college could transfer the equipment to them at a nominal cost.

Parents said they’d need to discuss it as a group and asked if the college could postpone the closing so they could figure out logistics. Trustee John W. Dowd III said that wouldn’t be feasible because of the construction timeline.

To keep the preschool operating, parents would also need to come up with the money for faculty salaries and benefits. With the current staff of 17, that amounts to $813,000, Becker said.

Human resources personnel talked to preschool faculty about the closure Tuesday before the meeting, parents said.

Dowd said the college has spent $3.7 million subsidizing the preschool and that it’s not central to their main mission of providing a high-value, high-quality post-secondary education.

Barbara Scheffer, a retired paralegal professor, was there the day the college dedicated the center and said opening it was one of the most progressive things the college has done.

More than a dozen comparable colleges in Florida have early childhood schools, she said. That includes Broward College, Indian River State College and Miami Dade College.

“This is a step backward. This is not the right way to go,” Scheffer said.

The college opened the preschool in January 2001 with a two-fold purpose: to care for the children of its students and staff and to be a resource for students, primarily those studying education and nursing.

But children of the college’s staff or students make up less than 20 percent of enrollment, the college president wrote in a letter to parents announcing the closure.

Parents said faculty and students don’t use the school because they don’t know they can. Christina Filis, whose 2-year-old daughter attends the preschool, put together a detailed marketing and social media plan and offered a year of free services from her company.

She said she was “stunned” and disappointed in the board’s response. She doesn’t want to put her daughter in school anywhere else, and the wait lists are long. The preschool’s affiliation with the college — with students coming from several different departments to do observations — was one of its biggest advantages, she said.

The parents may approach Florida Atlantic University, which offers upper-level education courses at its Jupiter campus, about taking over the preschool. That would allow the faculty to keep their benefits as public employees.

Sasha Sampaio said it’s the teachers that make the preschool such a special place for her son. His teachers have worked there for 17 and 10 years, respectively, she said.

“That’s why it’s so incredibly high quality,” Sampaio said.