Reagan Gasparre of Little Willows preschool with business director Myra Johnson. (Neil Corbett/THE NEWS)

Private daycare operators fear government’s plan

Maple Ridge parents await $350 per month reductions

Private daycare operators in Maple Ridge are worried that they are being forced out of business by the NDP government’s plans for child care.

The government has announced $1 billion to reduce child care fees for families as part of a 10-year plan to provide universal daycare.

However, Reaghan Gasparre of Maple Ridge said she and her husband Frank have more than a $1 million in debt for their four Little Willows Preschool locations, and worry they are going to lose their investment.

The government has announced fee reductions for her customers of $350 per month for parents of children up to age three, and $100 for children aged 3-5, under its Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative. She charges $1,195 per month for the infant/toddlers and $880 per month for preschoolers.

However, if Gasparre and other private daycares opt into the program, she said they lose the right to independently raise fees – a key part of the business, because it is the sole source of revenue.

“How can I do that when there is no transparency,” she asks. “We want to know what’s happening. This is our whole livelihood they’re messing with.”

Any delays in daycares opting in will cost parents hundreds of dollars per month.

However, there is uncertainty about whether they will have viable businesses in the future, Gasparre said, and operators are hearing no consolation from the government.

“It’s no secret the NDP want everything [daycares] non-profit,” she said.

Gasparre said the NDP government has already burdened her with a new payroll health tax that will take effect in 2019, and cost her $25,000 for her staff of 40. If she cannot raise her fees, there is no way to cover the rising costs.

Gasparre planned to one day sell her businesses and retire – that’s her “pension.” But with the uncertain future, she’s not sure she could sell the business for what she owes even now.

Touring her location on 119th Avenue in downtown Maple Ridge, she points out the fenced and partially covered outdoor play area, the “little tiny toilets” and other parts of her major renovation that cost $670,000.

Little Willows has five 24-seat buses to pick up and drop of children from school.

She opened her first location in 2002, and now has 265 licenced daycare spaces between the four locations, and employs a staff of 40.

She has made a big investment.

“My whole life is this daycare,” she said.

Gasparre said daycare operators are angry they learned about the changes not through consultation, but during the budget announcement in February, or afterward when parents started asking about their $350 per month fee reduction.

Operators just got copies of their contracts on March 19, and they need to opt into a program that is scheduled to start April 1.

She sees contradictions between the fact sheets sent out by government and the contracts, and said the whole thing needs to be seen by her lawyer before she signs it.

There is a shortage of staff for childcare, and that is something the government should have addressed first, before pledging to create 22,000 new child care spaces.

The issue is that operators try hard to keep fees low, so wages stay low – approximately $15 per hour on average

“It’s hard to pay great wages when you have to keep fees as low as possible for parents.”

Alexis Playdon owns the Imagination Station, which has three locations in Maple Ridge and another in Walnut Grove, built up over 11 years in the private daycare business. Her partner is Lynsey Paschley.

Playdon said they employ 26 people and have a payroll of $80,000 per month.

Her loans are secured by a mortgage on her own home. Out of consideration for parents, some of their locations haven’t raised fees in five years.

She said nobody is getting rich.

“This is the kind of business you go into only because you love children.”

And now she too is worried that her business will ultimately fail under the government’s new system.

“The plan the government has doesn’t include us,” she said. “They won’t have to buy anyone out – just run us out.”

For example, Playdon fears private daycare operators will soon be competing for staff with the deep pockets of the provincial treasury, because of the government’s commitment to create 22,000 new daycare spots.

Staffing is a huge issue, because for infant/toddler care there must be one staff member for every four children. At age 3-5 the ration is 1:8.

She doesn’t believe the government has a clear vision for daycare, based on the ever-changing information coming from Victoria.

“They don’t have a straight-up plan. They’re still making it up as they go.”

She said four out of five private daycare operators she has spoken to are not comfortable with the government plan, and don’t want to opt in.

“We need to stand together. We can make a difference,” she said. “We are all just small family businesses that love children.”

Local private daycare operators are having a meeting on Monday night at The Well to discuss the government plan. Provincially, a new B.C. Childcare Owners Association was started as a voice for these operators two weeks ago.

Both MLAs serving Maple Ridge, Bob D’Eith and Lisa Beare, declined to comment on the issue.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development issued a statement: “Since coming into government. we have been talking to parents and child-care providers to hear their views on how we can support struggling parents. In November, we held a two-day forum in Vancouver with child care providers and other key stakeholders to get their ideas on how we can achieve our commitment of affordable, accessible and quality child care for all families who need and want it.”

Government also conducted a targeted online consultation.

Participation in the child care fee reduction initiative is voluntary. Providers who have opted in will receive a 10 per cent increase to their child care operating funding for any spaces that are funded through the new initiative.

There is no deadline for opting in.

“We are pleased to say that early results show that a vast majority of contracts reviewed by staff are from providers who are choosing to opt in to the fee reduction,” said the statement.

The Fraser Institute recently released a report about the Quebec daycare model.

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