For nearly 50 years, the University of Akron has had a collection of pint-size students.

But that tradition ended this week, with UA closing the Center for Child Development in the face of campus financial woes.

Parents, teachers and others are dismayed over the shutdown, saying the closing was too abrupt, and that center leaders weren’t given enough time to figure out ways to keep the doors open.

“It’s so sad. It’s been such a part of the university, such a part of the community and it’s changed so many lives,” said Regina Wilson, who was president of the school’s parent advisory board.

Center staffers “are just having to pack up and say [to the university], ‘Here’s the building. Do with it what you want. I’m so utterly heartbroken.’?’’

UA spokesman Wayne Hill said Friday there are no immediate plans for the building, though “several different organizations have expressed interest in the facility.”

He declined to reveal details.

The building is a former Girl Scout council facility at 108 Fir Hill, on the campus. The school offered toddler, preschool and pre-kindergarten classes.

There were rumors about the center closing earlier this year, as well as in prior years. Early in the year, Hill said, parents and center staff members had discussions with UA officials about the center’s future.

But parents and staff members did not get official word of the closing until last month, when UA President Matthew Wilson wrote in a letter dated April 20 — released after a UA board meeting — that the center was not viable.

Wilson said a review of expenditures over the last five years shows the center’s average annual deficit amounted to $274,400.

University deficit

Hill said in light of the university’s budget deficit, programs and operations across the campus “were being carefully scrutinized.” Earlier this year, officials planned to cover part of the deficit by withdrawing $18 million from reserves.

Wilson said in his letter that another factor in the decision to close was that “very few” students, faculty and staff used it.

He said of the 69 children enrolled at the center as of March 10, 36 had parents affiliated with UA.

Center supporters argue that enrollment was constrained by the university’s staffing levels and accreditation standards. The school was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which has rigourous standards.

Supporters say a universitywide hiring freeze left one classroom vacant this year.

They say the $274,000 average deficit doesn’t reflect financial improvements made in the past few years.

Sue Rasor-Green­halgh, a former director of UA’s School of Family and Consumer Science, worked with the center for years. She said the university subsidized the facility for decades, seeing that it had value as a community asset, as well as an observation/training center for students studying early childhood education and other subjects.

Such laboratory schools at universities, Rasor-Greenhalgh said, are “an expense to a university … to have this quality of a center is an expense.”

She said “there really wasn’t a good faith effort to save it,” adding that UA didn’t pursue ideas of teaming up with various nonprofit groups offering preschool programs.

Additionally, Rasor-Greenhalgh said, steps could have been taken by the university to make the center more of a campus asset by involving more departments and students in using the center for research projects.

“The center could have been a showcase,” she said.

Wilson acknowledged in his letter that more than 200 students from throughout the university conducted classroom observations at the center over the past semester. But his data show that an average of only 37 students from the school’s education college have done observations per semester over the last four years.

He said many students go to other child care centers in the area for classroom observations and “field experience.”

Hill, the UA spokesman, said the “past can’t be changed. This administration had to address this situation, as well as many others throughout campus, now.”

The Child Development Center opened in 1969 in the basement of a church no longer on campus. It was first called a Nursery Center.

Mary Ellen Atwood, a resident of Copley Township, and Jean Williams, who now lives in the Chicago area, were the founding leaders of the center, coming from a preschool program at Kent State University.

“It was a quality place,” Atwood said of the center.

“It’s sad that it’s closing. It was my baby,” she said.

Still, she said, she understands President Wilson “inherited a huge deficit.”

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ  on Twitter or on Facebook at www.facebook.com.