The 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.
“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.
“I do think a rebidding process is good for competition. I think it does make us strive to be better,” Sickels said. “I’m coming from a point-of-view where the process has helped my organization grow. But my problem is some of the changes the county made in the selection process sacrificed quality in an effort to open it up to just anybody. We don’t have faith that ICB’s going to handle it, to tell you the truth.”
Sickels estimated that out of his 19 programs in county schools, 16 have gone up for bid. He claimed one provider has programs in 17 schools and never had to face a rebid process.
“It does make you scratch your head when almost every single provider goes up for rebid and there’s one that doesn’t,” Sickels said. “That seems like utter mismanagement, bordering on incompetence. It does make me question some of the other judgement calls that ICB’s been making.”
Gong said allegations of an uneven and mismanaged rebid process are completely false.
“We took every school and we had the providers themselves tell us when they started in that school. Then we arranged it by date and took the ones that had been providing the service the longest,” Gong said. “We took about 20 to 23 each year. If you had been in that school longer, than yours was up for bid. It wasn’t based on the provider. It was based on the date and then we went up that list. All these dates were verified by the providers.”
Sickels said out of the roughly 120 county schools with child care programs, ICB rebid only 10 the first year and about 17 the next year, creating extra time for some providers in what was supposed to be a new process of five-year contracts.
He also said the county needs to regulate the make-up of the school committees and other parts of the presentation process.
“It could be a principal and a teacher, a bunch of parents. I’ve been to one where there were no parents who used before and after care. I don’t understand that,” Sickels said. “Originally, the proposal we provided was scored as part of the selection process. The last couple years, that proposal was not allowed. It was only the scores from the interview. So the meat and potatoes — policies, rates, how helpful we were to parents — none of that was really considered.”
The Riemer memo, sent to Gong on Nov. 8, 2013, highlights a number of other anonymously presented complaints from child care providers unhappy about the process.
There’s one about a principal who allegedly told an incumbent child care provider up for rebid that the provider could buy her a commercial popcorn machine for school events.
One provider said he or she was told “that parents don’t care about quality and that ‘old, white women,’ should not represent your center, should not be part of the process.”
A provider alleged it lost space in a school and was told afterward by the school’s principal that “he hated the process and felt the whole thing was scripted to get a certain result.” A provider told Riemer it was told by ICB “to put more minorities on our interview committee, to have a sales-type person be present at your interview, change your name, that tuition was too expensive” and “to be perkier,” among other things.
Gong labeled the allegations from providers as misinformation.
“We built in confidentiality. People have to disclose, all of these aspects of a good process have been built into it,” Gong said. “The question is, if you’re performing a great service, why should you not continue? Why would you not be picked? Our assumption and the assumption of my board, the ICB, is you would be picked again. There shouldn’t be an issue.”
Some in the child care field said the controversy stems from ICB’s ultimate priority as a leasing agent for school facilities — not as a careful selector of quality child care programs.
In its 2012-2013 Annual Report, the Montgomery County Commission on Child Care recommended moving the selection process under the purview of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services:
Broader organizational changes must be made to make child care in public space a well thought out County priority that supports quality care options for families. A host of critical issues must be addressed including how often public space should be rebid, how to grant priority to non-profit providers as required by State law, who should serve on bid selection panels, as well as identifying standards to evaluate the quality of provider care. The Commission concludes that the best way to promote consistent, reliable and quality child care options for families is to consolidate all child care in public space into an organized program overseen and coordinated by HHS.
“I think it’s preferable,” Riemer said when asked about that suggestion. “The problem that we have today is that the process isn’t well defined. It isn’t clear and participants feel as though it produces arbitrary outcomes. That’s just something that we need to fix. We want parents to feel that the county government has a way to get the best providers in and when they’re in there, we can keep them in there as long as they continue to succeed.”
Gong argued her office’s experience and expertise working with MCPS in facilitating the use of its space is vital.
“This is really more a facilitation of space and a trust issue. The school system has asked us to administer it. We’ve been administering it since the 1980s,” Gong said. “There’s no reason that should change. For it now to change to HHS, who really does not work closely with the schools like we do on a day-to-day basis, just doesn’t make sense.”
Gong said the work group is refining the regulations and she hopes to resume implementing the rebid process, perhaps for seven-year terms instead of the original five. Her office must rewrite the administrative procedures before the rules can hit the County Council.
Gong said she hoped to have that done in time for rebidding this year, but she’s now not sure that will happen.
“The short answer is it’s not moving very fast and that’s kind of the problem,” Riemer said. “It just illustrates how slow it’s moving. If they don’t get it done soon, then we’ll do it.”
Hurt hired a lobbyist to help make the case for Wonders at the County Council. She has periodically asked parents to call and write councilmembers in support of increased regulations and moving the selection program to HHS.
“ICB will say, ‘Parents are clamoring for after school programs,’” Hurt said. “We’re saying, ‘Well, parents are wanting to have a say in the process and they’re wanting to ensure that you’re placing top-quality programs in their schools.’