A pair of child care centers in Chittenden County will “rebrand” later this year, forcing a huge tuition increase that has angered parents.
Parents and staff at two Loveworks child care centers in South Burlington and Essex learned in a March 1 letter that, as of August, those centers will become Heartworks, a different model within the same company that has a much stronger emphasis on early education.
According to director of operations Tara Brooks, the tuition increases, which vary depending on the age of the child, range from 30% to 40%. Brooks said tuition at Heartworks preschools was already significantly higher than Loveworks, but those rates are increasing more modestly, around 4%.
“This is an effort to rebrand so that they're all under the same education model and they're all the same tuition rates,” Brooks said.
After receiving the letter, parents pushed back. They circulated a petition, and some parents directly emailed Brooks and David Post, CEO of Little Sprouts, a Massachusetts company that owns 39 child care centers across New England, including six in Vermont. Those six locations, all in Chittenden County, serve around 400 children with about 140 staff, according to Brooks. Little Sprouts itself is owned by Babilou Family, a French early education company.
With pressure mounting, parents had a chance to question Post at two virtual meetings held last week. The meetings opened with Post justifying the rebranding, arguing that “the financial model for these schools was not sustainable.” The company faces a choice, Post said: bring in more revenue “or run the risk of closing the schools.”
“We are all in an enterprise within a broken system,” Post told the parents in one meeting. “It's too expensive for parents. It's too expensive for providers, and our states and our federal government are simply not doing enough to help us out.”
During the two meetings many parents said it wasn’t simply about the tuition. Some pointed out that they’ve grown used to annual tuition increases to help improve teacher wages and many voiced support for paying teachers more. They were also concerned that the Heartworks education model means more weeks off, during which parents still pay for tuition but have to arrange for alternate care. Brooks said the Heartworks calendar includes four weeks off, a change she said would benefit teachers.
Other parents accused Post and other leaders at Little Sprouts of imposing price hikes at a time when few parents are able to change to another child care center.
“You know none of us can leave, so you’re manipulating and taking advantage of that situation,” Dani Casey said during one meeting.
“That’s not true,” Post said. He went on to say that while he wouldn’t reveal any financial figures “because we’re a private company, I will say that the choice here was between continuing to operate the school at a higher tuition level, or the real potential of having to close the school down because it was not making enough money.”
One parent at the March 15 virtual meeting, Jayson Durante, asked Post if there was any “wiggle room” with the tuition hikes “or are you just going to do it no matter what any of us say?”
In response, Post simply said, “we’re committed to this path.”
“That’s the most disrespectful thing I’ve heard out of this whole conversation,” Durante said.
Durante, whose 2-year-old attends the South Burlington Loveworks, said in an interview on Monday that he didn’t think Post answered parents’ primary questions. His family would like to consider switching child care, he said, but with long waitlists at most centers, there aren’t many options.
Another couple in Essex agreed.
“There's nowhere to go,” said Andrew Marcotte. “Every day care has at least a year waitlist, most cases two years. Neither of us want to leave the workforce. We don't have family that can help. So we were really trapped.”
Andrew and Victoria Marcotte have a toddler at the Essex Loveworks and will soon have an infant attending as well. Their total bill for two children will add up to $47,000 annually under the new rate, they said, which amounts to roughly 60% of their income.
“We can't simply go to our employer and ask for another $800 a month by August just because our day care demands it,” Andrew Marcotte said. “So our kids are going to be missing out on things like family vacations, nice presents, saving for college. So yeah, unfortunately, we're just gonna have to figure it out.”
Brooks, the operations director, is based in Vermont and has worked in child care for over 25 years. She said the changes planned at Loveworks are crucial for the company, which sees itself as providing more than child care.
“Our mission goes way beyond just taking care of children,” Brooks said on Monday. “Our mission is really around early education. And that's really at the forefront of what we do. We want to have high quality educators and for the field of early education to be really seen as a professional field similar to public schools.”
The lack of options for parents at Loveworks reflects a statewide child care crunch. Last week at the Statehouse, the Senate advanced a bill that includes funding for both child care and parental leave. But the problem in child care comes from two directions — many parents struggle with affordability while early education teachers leave the field in search of better pay and benefits.
In early 2020, Little Sprouts closed three Loveworks locations in Williston, Montpelier and Milton. The company said at the time of those closures that one major factor was finding and retaining staff.
“I have never, in my 27 years (in child care) seen the industry as it exists today,” Post said at one of the parent meetings. “Covid devastated our industry.”
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