Aspen preschools in merger talks |

Aspen preschools in merger talks

Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesYoungsters take a snack break at the Roaring Fork Kids pre-K class in Aspen's Yellow Brick building. Roaring Fork Kids is in merger talks with another local preschool organization, the Early Learning Center.

ASPEN – With more parents unemployed because of the recession, the demand for Aspen day care isn’t what it used to be. Fundraising for nonprofit preschool facilities also has leveled off.

The recession, however, isn’t the primary reason behind merger talks between two of Pitkin County’s two largest childcare providers – Early Learning Center and Roaring Fork Kids.

Instead, the two operations, both based at the Yellow Brick schoolhouse in Aspen, are entertaining an alliance in an effort to streamline their business by having one full-time executive director.

As it stands, the Early Learning Center, or ELC, is run by Sara Burrows. When Burrows learned that Roaring Fork Kids needed a full-time head, she floated the idea that one director could run both preschool facilities if they combined operations.

The idea of the merger has been on the table since the fall. Last week the volunteer boards for each day care provider held a meeting with parents about the idea. The directors of each board say they feel encouraged by the talks, but the deal is not done.

“The reality of it is right now we’re still exploring,” said Jenny MacArthur, the director of the board for Roaring Fork Kids. “We are working very diligently to identify where the differences are so we can come to a common agreement.”

MacArthur and Brian Flynn, the director of ELC’s board, said they hope to reach a decision soon. The merger can happen if four of the six members on each board votes in approval.

“As a board member I feel that both [day care facilities] are strong and do well on their own,” Flynn said.

Flynn also notes, however, that a merger between the two would create more flexibility both financially and when it comes to accommodating children and class sizes.

A letter sent to parents last month gave an overview of the merger, noting that “both programs see benefits from potential increased financial stability and great community representation on their boards. The primary objective is to assure a strong organization, capable of meeting the current and long-term needs of the community.”

Flynn and MacArthur both recognized that along with the potential benefits of a merger, there is a downside as well.

“In a community where you have limited choice, this merger would make it even more limited,” Flynn said. “Some comments I’m hearing from parents is that they like choice.”

MacArthur added: “People in general, when they see a change they don’t like change. There is some fear with families of what does this look like, the fear of the unknown, which is stressful for parents and teachers.

“But it’s important to be clear that there was going to be change anyway” with a new executive director at Roaring Fork Kids.

Should the merger be approved, it would take effect Sept. 1. Some questions remain unanswered, including what the new facility would be named and the size of the staff.

“We would like to have made a decision three weeks ago,” MacArthur said. “But the reality is there are so many pieces and nuances. We don’t want to make a decision and later say, ‘Oh, we didn’t think of that.'”

The ELC and Roaring Fork Kids, which provide care for newborns and infants through pre-kindergarten, are the two largest day care providers in Pitkin County, which has 18 licensed facilities, according to Shirley Ritter, executive director of Kids First, a day care funding program financed by city sales tax revenue.

ELC’s operating budget was $860,000 in 2009; Roaring Fork Kids as $720,000, Ritter said. ELC provides care for approximately 80 children, Roaring Fork Kids about 75. Both programs operate in the black, Ritter said.

The demand for day care has waned since the recession, but both day care facilities still have waiting lists, Ritter said. The impacts of the economy are felt deeper on the day care industry farther downvalley, she said.

“Most programs would tell you that before the current economic [crisis] we’re in, that they had deep waiting lists,” Ritter explained. “And for the most part, on the lower end of the valley, the enrollment is down. [In Aspen] we still have people on waiting lists. It’s harder on the programs farther downvalley, where it’s more of a boom-and-bust cycle.”

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