MANTUA — Portage Play and Learn School in Mantua is scrambling to find a new location by May 24 after the school’s governing board and the Faith United Methodist Church governing board voted to cease operations at the church this past winter.

Following the vote of the school board in February and the subsequent action by the church, school Administrator Lindsey Kwisnek submitted a proposal to take over the center, appoint another board and move to a new location. The school board is meeting  May 13, and Kwisnek is hoping that they sign the business over to her so that she can continue offering services to local families.

According to several families of children with disabilities, PALS is the only preschool/day care in the area that would accept and work with their children.

The Americans with Disabilities Act states that all privately-run child care centers cannot exclude children with disabilities from their programs unless their presence would pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others or would require “a fundamental alteration” of the program. Centers also have to make “reasonable modifications” to their policies to integrate children, parents and guardians with disabilities into their programs, unless doing so would constitute a “fundamental alteration.” Even small, home-based centers must comply with those standards. The exception is child care centers that are run by religious entities.

PALS currently serves four children with autism, one with cerebral palsy and one with multiple sclerosis, and at least three of those children have been turned away by other centers in the area, according to Kwisnek.

Mary Ellison’s grandson has cerebral palsy and has been going to the school for over a year now. She said they tried four other day cares before PALS, none of which could provide for her grandson.

″[PALS] went above and beyond. They learned to put his wheelchair together, how to work with his AFOs [leg braces],” Ellison said. If the school closed permanently, she said she would have to branch out farther to find another day care that would accept her grandson.

Faith United started the school as a ministry in the early 1980s, but due to the church’s financial problems and the day-to-day operating expenses, expenses and debts owed, the two boards made the decision to close the school, Pastor Joyce Hoile said.

“It was a really difficult decision to make. We care deeply about each of these children. We couldn’t find a way to keep the school open, so it hurts to close it. I wish we had solutions, but we just weren’t able to find any,” she said.

According to Hoile, PALS raised tuition by $10 recently and had push back from families. To keep the school open, given the enrollment rates, they would have had to raise the cost significantly.

“We started getting more momentum, but in looking at the numbers, and just extrapolating what we’d receive from new enrollments and the cost of new enrollment, meaning you need more teachers, it still wasn’t going to be viable without a large tuition hike,” she said.

The church has also been struggling financially due to the rising costs of water testing and treatment required by the EPA, Hoile said, although the issue was not a part of the discussions about closing the school. The church uses well water, and with a school being located on its premises, the church was required to test its water more frequently. Last year, the cost was more than $18,000, Hoile said, which was paid for by the church.

“It’s a reality of having the ministry here on the property, but was not part of the discussion about closing the schools. The PALS financial obligations did not include any of the water testing or treatment costs,” she said.

According to Kwisnek, “It’s basically financial and also they don’t really want us in their building anymore. I understand that 50 to 60 kids could put wear and tear on the building, but the church is in a financial pickle and they’re blaming us.”

Kwisnek is working with a real estate agent to find free-standing buildings that could house the school. She hopes to stay within the Crestwood School District.

“Some of our kids are going to kindergarten. So they’d have to find somewhere new to go for two months and then have to go to a completely new kindergarten in August and have to build relationships there. It’s going to be detrimental to them emotionally,” she said.

“Parents say that they’ve taken kids to other centers and the kids cling to them and it’s a pain. But here, they can’t get their kids to leave. They barely get a backward glance when they drop off and when they show up too early, the kids get mad.”

 

Reporter Krista S. Kano can be reached at 330-541-9417, kkano@recordpub.com and on Twitter @KristaKanoRCedu.