Daycares given notice to vacate

Little Acorn and Country Village Day School pleaded their case Thursday night at a school board meeting, requesting a small extension on their leases scheduled to terminate Aug. 31. But the passage of the school bond and levy, means construction of a new elementary school will  begin by year’s end on the North Mercer campus.

The week before last, Youth Theatre Northwest announced its plans to move. The decision means both were served their 180-day notice on Friday.

“It was a little bit [of a surprise],” said Tiana Traylor, president of Little Acorn. “I thought they would give us a month or two.”

The district argued that construction costs made extending the lease, even by a few months, not viable, though it promised to assist in the search. Little Acorn currently serves 44 students, but will only be able to take on 20 due to the move. Country Village Day School (CVDS) serves 200 kids, a class size that makes finding an alternate space exceedingly difficult.

Sarah Tallon a member of CVDS’ Board of Trustees said it had been looking at several sites over the last few years, including the Honeywell building at the north end of the Island, the New Hope church and developments around the Town Center, though outdoor space is critical for any child care facility. CVDS is also looking at sites off island.

Marilyn Wellnitz, director of Creative Learning Center Montessori School, sympathizes.

“I am kind of in the community center cocoon,” she said. “Luckily I haven't had to go out and look for space, but it's a terrifying notion. I know from 12 years ago, before I got my current space, I was looking for five to six years.”

Daycare facilities, which operate year-round unlike the school district, could be seriously impacted by even a small gap in their programming. Traylor says she is currently working with the Parks and Rec. department to ready a room in the Community Center. Wellnitz plans to move over one room, so she won’t be sandwiched between Little Acorn’s Sprouts and Day School programs. That would require Traylor to put her own money toward improvements, like electrical upgrades, two sinks and another toilet, as well as bathroom stall walls.

“When word got out that we have to leave, several people left right then,” said Traylor.

Island parents are already taking note. Wellnitz said she has ten full-time spaces available but has been flooded with calls since news of the 180-day notice broke. Traylor said six children have left and nobody from Little Acorn’s waiting list would take their spot. That’s a big revenue loss, says Traylor, especially as they save for their transition.

“For a huge school like Country Village, to try to find a new place in six months, that's a lot to handle,” says Wellnitz. “If there's any gap [in programming], that would create a big void on the Island, a need that's not met.”

Wellnitz says while most of her students are from the Island, she serves families from as far away as Kirkland, Seattle's University District and Queen Anne.

The city has in the past, revisited zoning to better accommodate neighborhood preschool and daycare facilities, expanding, for instance, class sizes from 12 to 18 kids. But it's an imperfect system. Mercer Island real estate is outside the budget of most child care centers. And, adds Traylor, licensing requires 35-square-feet of indoor space for each child, a sink for food prep and two separate ones for hand-washing and diaper-changing. A toilet is required for every 15 kids and 75-square-feet of outdoor space is needed per child. The hurdles don't end there. Wellnitz says before she secured her current location, she bought a house, a near perfect site right by Mercer Island Presbyterian Church and just off Island Crest Way. But the neighbors protested the arrival of a child care facility in their backyard.

Traylor expressed her gratitude to the council and Parks and Rec. department for their work in helping her relocate. She also thanked the school district for seven years at its North Mercer site. Little Acorn’s new home will be in the same spot it resided in 16 years ago.

“Even if all-day preschools could manage to find a space large enough with suitable green space for a playground on an island where almost nothing like that exists, the commercial lease and purchase costs are just too prohibitively expensive,” said Traylor. “If this community wants to continue to have quality preschool and all-day care for the children of their working parents, they will need to look at a long-term solution to this ever-encroaching problem.”


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