LCF parents question Child Educational Center decision

Although the La Cañada school board this month approved a contract extension for childcare services with the Child Educational Center, some community members question whether enough parent input was sought before the decision was made.

Charles Calix, a La Cañada resident whose daughter attends a CEC after-school program run at her school site, said he was disappointed parents weren't asked their opinions on childcare services. The topic was also nowhere to be found on recent parent satisfaction surveys circulated by the district.

"The district did not involve parents in this decision-making process," Calix said. "They simply kicked the can down the road for the most convenient thing."

The board voted 3-2 May 7 on a two-year contract with the center, which has provided the services on local campuses for 10 years. The decision to stick with CEC was the result of a months-long Request for Proposal process that considered two other providers.

"I got an overwhelming amount of feedback on this," said board member Andrew Blumenfeld at a May 7 board meeting. "Perhaps the [Request for Proposal] is not capturing a key voice in the community."

As an alternative, he suggested cutting the contract term in half, during which time LCUSD could gather more information, including feedback from parents inside and outside all competing programs. The two-year contract was granted, however, with Blumenfeld and fellow board member Joel Peterson dissenting.

Ellen Multari, who represented the board on the selection committee, defended the decision at the meeting, saying, "We felt (CEC) best addressed the needs of the community as we know it today."

Still, she admitted, there are improvements in the RFP process that can and will be made in the next two school years while CEC similarly addresses small challenges brought up by the committee before the childcare contract is re-bid for the 2015-16 school year.

CEC enjoyed an uninterrupted working relationship with the district for 10 years, but in February learned LCUSD was reviewing its childcare options for the 2013-14 school year as a best practice measure. The Crescenta-Cañada Family YMCA and Kids Klub also got notices requesting proposals.

"Our relationship with the district and school personnel has been very collaborative and positive," CEC Executive Director Elyssa Nelson said in an email interview. "We understood this to be a healthy, periodic, routine action."

A nine-member selection committee composed of parents with no affiliation to any of the programs, school site administrators and Multari, scored the three contractors on a 900-point scale that considered everything from program offerings to staff credentials.

CEC and Kids Klub were in a dead heat. In a May 16 LCUSD board newsletter circulated throughout the community, the district explained the tie-breaking decision.

"The two programs are widely divergent and there was strong support within the panel for both," it read. "Ultimately, the panel chose to award the contract to CEC but requested some program improvements, including LCUSD staff discounts and a tightening up of their homework policy."

When the two-year contract period is over, providers will be asked to submit proposals again. By that time, Multari said, surveys from all parents who use childcare services will have been collected to better inform the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, Eagle Rock mother Rebecca Niederlander, whose husband works at JPL, has a 7-year-old daughter in CEC's after-school program at Paradise Canyon Elementary School and couldn't be happier. She researched many options and said CEC's emphasis on child-centered, project-based learning was one reason the family chose to enroll their daughter in a La Cañada school.

"They're highly respected and they know their business," Niederlander said. "What they're providing is a very important yin and yang to the classroom experience our kids have. It's not just babysitting."

An adviser for CEC's art docent program, which teaches kids about modern California artists, Niederlander said she'd follow CEC if another company were to take over at the schools.

"It's about what's right for the kids," she said. "I feel like we're really lucky to have them."

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