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Parents Take on Penn State in Dispute Over Child Care Management

by on July 02, 2013 1:15 PM

Worried parents are fighting to stop changes at the Bennett Family Center which provides child care on the Penn State campus. Last week, Penn State announced that effective Aug. 19, the operation would be turned over to Hildebrant Learning Centers. That triggered a wave of opposition.

Monday, parents held a sit-in on the steps of Old Main. Children brought signs that read, "We Love Our Teachers," and "We Care For Our Teachers." More than 200 people turned out for the event. A few parents representing the entire group talked with Penn State President Rodney Erickson and say he promised them a meeting.

Parents worry that the quality of child care will suffer if the change goes through. Currently, the staff is employed by Penn State. If Hildebrant takes over, those people will lose their university benefits. Parents are concerned that child care workers will leave for better jobs.

The other child care center at the University Park campus, the Child Care Center at Hort Woods, has been run by the Dallas, Pa.-based management firm since 2010.

Penn State has not yet signed the contract with Hildebrant, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers confirmed Tuesday.

Debashis Ghosh, a Penn State statistics professor, says since the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal broke in November 2011, university leaders have pledged transparency. But that's not what he's seen over the past week. Teachers and parents weren't included in the decision-making process, and they were all caught off-guard.

Parents are still waiting for answers, he says.

"We don't want to see current teachers leave. In the long-term, can we figure out a way to have sustainable high quality child care on campus?" Ghosh says.

"These employees go from being Penn State employees to Hildebrant employees ... the Hildebrandt benefits options for its employees require a lot more employee buy-in, a lot more contribution," Ghosh says. "Staff used to be able to take classes at Penn State, continue their education. There were funds for that. They could send their children to Penn State for a discount. That's non-existent for a Hildebrandt employee."

Ghosh says it was the lack of involvement parents and staff had in the decision that made parents jump to attention.

"President Erickson has spoken ... This is a chance for him to fulfill that promise. We're all really thinking the ball is in his court," Ghosh says.

Parents say Penn State's policy regarding child care states, "Penn State must "be responsible employers by hiring professional staff paying equitable salaries and benefits, and paying attention to issues of good staff morale; thereby, preventing high staff turnover."

Ghosh doesn't feel as though Penn State followed that policy when making the decision to sign it's employees over to Hildenbrandt. 

"It goes back to the issue of transparency. Parents are concerned, frustrated and in the dark," he says.

Some of the parents are conducting a survey of the faculty and staff at the Bennett Family Center to get feedback on how they see this transition playing out. They plan to present it to the administration, Ghosh says.

Ann Crouter, Dean of the College of Health and Human Development, says she knows the issue of the child care centers is "on everyone's minds," but Penn State administrators don't have anything to report just yet. 

"In the last couple of days, I've been in several discussions with other people, including President Erickson and [Vice President for Human Resources] Susan Basso. We are still talking and working on next steps," she says.

Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.
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