NEWBURGH, Maine — Selectmen shuttered a town-run day care Thursday over concerns about liability and licensing, eliminating three jobs and leaving parents of up to 11 children looking for other options.
Board Chairman Mike Burns said Saturday that the issue came to light after a child fell and hurt his elbow May 10 while playing in the gymnasium, which is located in the former Newburgh Elementary School along with the day care. The child was not seriously injured, but Burns said the incident prompted him to review documentation associated with the day care, which was called Kids World.
“That’s what really triggered us to begin looking into what’s going on,” Burns said Saturday.
Burns and the other selectmen voted Monday, May 16, to let the day care continue until school ends in mid-June, but news reports about the situation and backlash from concerned townspeople led to a second vote. That vote took place Thursday during an emergency meeting in which selectmen decided unanimously to close down the operation as of Friday.
Key factors in the decision were the fact that the day care was not licensed by the state and, as such, could not obtain liability insurance through the Maine Municipal Association, Burns said.
“From a liability standpoint, we only had one choice,” Burns said.
The day care has been in operation for six years or more as an after-school program but expanded to full-day before the current school year. Burns said paperwork at the day care indicates that in the past two weeks, seven to 11 children have been there on a daily basis.
John Martins, who is a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department has been working with the day care for several months to help it obtain a license. Martins said numerous day cares in Maine are not licensed, which in general does not become an issue unless there are complaints or serious incidents that cause DHHS to step in.
“We can fine them if something happened and there was a complaint,” Martins said. “Frankly, we don’t have an overabundance of teeth in terms of what we can do, but in order to get insurance they need to be licensed.”
Martins said there have been no complaints or enforcement actions associated with Kids World. He said that for most day cares, being licensed by the state is a business decision because many parents seek out that level of care for their children. Among other things, families with children in licensed day cares enjoy tax breaks for their child care expenses.
Burns said DHHS recommended rather than ordered the town to close down the day care but that the liability factor was too large to ignore.
“As a selectman, I have to look out for the town and our liability,” he said.
The decision to close the day care is final, though Burns said the program’s employees are considering creating a board of directors so the day care could operate as a stand-alone business while leasing space from the town.
Burns said this issue and others have spurred more ugly exchanges during selectmen’s meetings, a continuation of heated rhetoric that has been going on for months. After a bitter and contentious meeting Monday, during which Burns said he was heckled by a handful of people — relatives of former Selectman Leona Smith, who resigned in March after Burns’ election — Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross opted to have two officers present at Thursday’s meeting.
Burns, who is a member of a citizens group called The Fixers, who have been criticizing Newburgh’s elected officials dating back to March 2010, said he respects anyone’s right to spout off during meetings but that there are limits.
“We have allowed them a chance to speak and let them get their questions and concerns out freely,” Burns said. “Now, it’s at the point where they’re calling me names, telling me to get my big boy pants on and go sit on my head. They’re allowed the same rights I had when I stood up and talked at meetings, but the difference is that I never called anyone names.”
Burns said selectmen will meet next for a workshop that begins at 6 p.m. Thursday.