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Child Care Providers Say County Bidding Process Has Many Flaws

By Aaron Kraut

Tuesday - 1/7/2014, 12:15pm  ET

Wonders child care program at Bethesda Elementary School, via Wonders Child Care CenterThe Wonders Child Care Center was rebidding for its longtime space in North Chevy Chase Elementary School in May 2012 when things went awry.

A school staff member of the committee that judged if Wonders would retain the space happened to be a former parent who had had a legal dispute with the Chevy Chase-based nonprofit. The scores from six members of the committee, on a 100-point scale, were 100, 100, 88, 85, 81 and 50, according to a complaint submitted in a memo by County Councilmember Hans Riemer.

Wonders lost the rebid by a reported four points, according to Executive Director Joanne Hurt, and was given the following feedback: “We should have worn matching shirts because people like to know who the providers are,” Hurt told BethesdaNow.com.

Some who provide before and after school child care for kids in Montgomery County school buildings, including the owner of the group that won the North Chevy Chase bid, say the county’s process for selecting which operators get school space is unfair and riddled with inconsistencies.

More pressing, they say, is that the flawed process is leading to lower quality child care.

Ginny Gong, head of the county department that administers the selection process, adamantly defended it — as Riemer and providers like Hurt push for new regulations.

New Bidding Process Brings Controversy

The Community Use of Public Facilities (CUPF), with oversight from its governing board (known as the Interagency Coordinating Board, or ICB) has assisted county elementary and middle schools with the selection of before and after care childcare providers since the mid-1980s, according to finance team program manager Liz Habermann.

Gong, executive director of the CUPF, said the department decided to create a new process in 2007 to give other providers an opportunity.

The CUPF and ICB, which act essentially as a leasing agent for county school facilities, renting out child care space as well as gyms and playing fields, oversaw a process in which committees from each school interviewed the incumbent provider and those wishing to take over at the school.

Those committees were generally made up of the school’s principal or an assistant administrator, a parent of a child under the incumbent provider’s care, a building services manager and perhaps other parents and school staff.

Ginny Gong, executive director of the county CUPF, via Montgomery County

“We oversaw it. We made sure it followed best procurement practices. The mechanisms were in place working closely with the principals to help them create their own committees,” Gong said. “Some providers were at schools for more than 25 years. The [ICB] felt we needed a procurement process that would open up opportunities to others and if the provider was doing a great job, they’ll be reselected. It’s as simple as that.”

On May 18, 2012, eight days after its failed interview, Wonders Child Care announced its was appealing the decision to Gong because of the committee member’s “bias” that “was apparent during the committee’s work.” Hurt also claimed the committee member never disclosed her previous legal issue with Wonders and that the North Chevy Chase principal, Renee Stevens, helped circulate “an anonymous letter to the community disparaging Wonders.”

Wonders sued. Hurt said the nonprofit dropped the suit to allow Bar-T, a bigger for-profit provider that had lost school sites, to continue with its suit.

The result was a Montgomery County Circuit Court decision that found the new ICB bidding system was not the legal way to conduct the process and that state law assigned the responsibility to each local Board of Education. In January 2013, the Montgomery County Board of Education punted the responsibility back to ICB, passing a resolution to delegate authority to the department.

Out of that, a work group including Gong, Hurt and other stakeholders was created that is still ironing out draft regulations to be debated and finalized by the County Council.

A Long List Of Complaints

Bob Sickels, owner of Wheaton-based Kids After Hours, is one of the child care providers who benefited the most from the new rebidding process. Sickels said he has expanded from before and after school programs in 12 schools to 19 schools, including at North Chevy Chase, where Kids After Hours beat out Wonders in 2012.

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