For 40 years, Davidson-Cornelius Day Care on Gamble Street on Davidson’s West Side has provided weekday care, meals and other services for pre-school children from a diverse mix of working families.
Now, the well-loved community institution is threatened. The weak economy has hurt enrollments, insurance costs are rising sharply and a state program that long funded care for low-income families has all but dried up, leaving board members scrambling to keep the center open.
“We’re going to run out of money this week,” board President Carol Higham said Friday. “We’re holding on to the cliff by our fingernails.”
Board members said Friday they hope to make ends meet by seeking partners, stepping up marketing, planning fund-raisers, and also by retooling the non-profit center’s business model, which has worked smoothly - until now.
They are making an urgent appeal for financial help.
Run by the North Mecklenburg Child Development Association, the center typically serves 45 children. It has eight staff members, including six full time teachers. One-third of the families in the day care have incomes below the state poverty line, which is $20,650 for a family of four. Five families are single parents, including three single fathers.
The center has been hit by what Ms. Higham called a “perfect storm” of troubles, mainly related to the economy. So board members are trying to come up with short-term funding, while also studying how to ensure the center’s long-range health, according to Eileen Keeley, a board member and parent.
“Short term, we need to raise enough so that we can stay open, so these families are not out on the street,” she said. “We know that for some of these kids the only two hot meals they get (every day) are at the day care.”
Meanwhile, in a move not directly related to the financial troubles, the center’s director resigned on Monday. Michelle Fox Bradley — the daughter of the late Mary Fox, who ran the day care for years — is moving to Morehead City to join her husband, following a job for him.
There are some financial bright spots. The association has no mortgage on the building, located at 242 Gamble St., a block away from the Ada Jenkins Center. And the center is coming off its two most successful years of fund-raising, which had allowed it to begin building its bank account.
But the loss of state subsidies and an increase in needy families has wiped out those gains. As of this week, the day care has run out of money to pay for salaries, food and other operating expenses. It also has no endowment.
Board members expect to obtain a bank loan to help out in the short term. But they say they need to plot how to overcome economic changes that have made a mess of the longtime business model.
Board members are approaching a variety of community leaders and potential partners looking for help. Among them is Mayor John Woods. He told DavidsonNews.net on Friday that he hopes the center can weather the crisis.
“The Davidson-Cornelius Day Care center has very deep roots in our community and has served many, many families in its 40-plus years. I know the community is committed to this children’s center,” Mayor Woods said.
A LONG HISTORY
As Mayor Woods observed, hundreds of families in Davidson have sent their children through the pre-school, which is one of only a few independent non-church, non-profit day care centers in the region.
The center was founded in 1969 by a collection of townspeople, Davidson College faculty and others who saw a need for day care — years before a national movement made day care a national issue.
“These were not people who needed day care, but people who saw that there were working people in the area who needed day care. They were revolutionary,” Ms. Keeley said.
The center’s mission since the start has been to serve a mix of families in three categories: Those who could afford full price, those who could pay a partial fee, and those who qualified for state subsidies.
But state funding has run out. State subsidies once totaled $8,000 to $12,000 a month — about half the center’s monthly budget. As of this month, subsidies account for only $600 a month. And there’s little room to cut costs. The center has been through cost-cutting in recent years and faces mandated costs — including the number of teachers per class, and what kind of food can be served — related to participating in the state subsidy program. So the budget is largely fixed.
Meanwhile, many families who fell into the middle group have slipped into the bottom group, now qualifying for subsidies that are no longer available. And many families who might be able to pay are choosing other options or deciding to have one parent stop working rather than pay for day care, Ms. Higham said.
Right now, the center has just 27 students, out of a maximum of 45. Of the 27 students, only one is from a family paying the full cost, two others pay a reduced fee and 24 are paying little or nothing, mainly because of the loss of state funds, Ms. Higham said. Of the 24, only 3 are receiving state subsidies. In past times, all would have.
Summer enrollments are typically down because some parents - such as teachers - are able to stay home. The center usually counts on a fall boost in enrollments, which usually creates a waiting list. But as of this week, the center has no new students enrolled for fall.
One of the keys to the center’s future may be improved marketing, board members say. Ms. Higham said she thinks many parents who could pay full price - which is less than other for-profit day care options in surrounding towns - may not be aware of the center, which is the only day care of its kind in the Exit 30 area.
Nonetheless, the center needs to do more to attract paying families, and it faces competition. “There are more options for the full-pay people: academic track, pre-schools, etcetera, in the Davidson area. And some of the full-pay people that we talked to off the waiting list (for fall) have chosen not to go back to work to save the day care fees,” Ms. Higham said.
Mayor Woods said he’s hopeful. “A group of talented, dedicated citizens is meeting to investigate this matter and determine if the business model that has worked well all these years is still valid, or if we need to reorganize the business function to better facilitate our commitment to children and families, especially those in financial need,” he said.
WANT TO HELP?
Tax-deductible donations for may be sent to North Mecklenburg Child Development Association, PO Box 848, Davidson, NC 28036. Questions about donating or how to help may be addressed to board president Carol Higham, 704-892-2311, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To inquire about enrolling at Davidson Cornelius Day Care, call 704-892-1228.