Regional School Unit 22 is teaming up with a national, for-profit company to offer before- and after-school programs at some of the district’s schools in Hampden and Winterport. But the arrangement has some families concerned because it will force existing programs out of their current spots at the schools.
The district’s superintendent, Rick Lyons, has signed an agreement with Champions, a subsidiary of KinderCare Learning Center, to provide before- and after-school programs and summer programming at the George B. Weatherbee and Earl C. McGraw schools in Hampden. The company will offer an after-school program and summer programming at the Leroy H. Smith School in Winterport.
The new arrangement — which the district’s board never voted on — is meant to offer a wider range of services to local families and meet a growing demand for out-of-school child care in the school district, according to Lyons. The addition it will bring to both towns is summer programming.
Under the agreement, the district will not pay any fees to Champions. Rather, families will pay the company, and RSU 22 will receive an 8 percent cut of the company’s net revenues in RSU 22, according to an agreement signed in April by Lyons and KinderCare’s chief executive officer.
The Hampden Recreation Program now offers before- and after-school programs at George B. Weatherbee and Earl C. McGraw but will have to move them to the Old Hampden Academy building, Lyons said.
The Bangor Region YMCA offers an after-school program at Leroy H. Smith but has not found a new location for its offering.
CEO Diane Dickerson said RSU 22 officials never asked whether the YMCA could try to expand its programming to meet the new demand and that it only learned of the upcoming changes recently from a parent. She is now pushing district officials to reverse the decision to partner with Champions, citing the YMCA’s commitment to the Bangor region and its record of working with RSU 22 kids.
“This is not in the best interest of the community,” Dickerson said. “We have been in this Winterport market for more than a decade with the after-school program.”
A half-dozen residents of Hampden and Winterport criticized the changes during a May 1 meeting of the RSU 22 board.
They raised numerous concerns about the company’s agreement with the district, which allows the company to raise the fees for its services at any point.
It’s hard to make a side-by-side cost comparison, as Champions, the Hampden Recreation Department and the YMCA all have different fee scales and registration costs, but at least some of their costs are similar.
Two Champions representatives who attended the recent RSU 22 board meeting said the company provides discounts and scholarships to families based on financial need. Kevin Eaton, a manager of business development at KinderCare, also said the biggest annual increases he has seen in its fees were 1 percent and that those hikes were not made “year after year.”
“Our goal is never to price ourselves out of the community,” Eaton said during the meeting.
Eaton did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The company’s website already advertises its services in Hampden and at the nearby Glenburn Elementary School. But Glenburn Superintendent Christine Boone said her district is still “investigating” whether to enter into an agreement with Champions.
No other school districts in the Bangor area appear to have partnered with Champions, but it does have a presence in Aroostook County, according to Lyons.
The residents who attended the RSU 22 board meeting had other concerns. They said a for-profit company would not be as responsive to community needs as the nonprofit and municipal entities that now provide after-school programming, and that it would be harder for the two smaller entities to handle the financial uncertainty of having to move to another location.
“We’re directing the money that the families in these communities have to pay for after care, and we’re funneling it to this company instead of enriching and sustaining and bolstering organizations like Hampden Rec and the Bangor Y that serve the wider community,” Kate Grossman, a Winterport parent, told the school board. “I think that’s the wrong decision. I am asking that this decision be reversed.”
Two Hampden town councilors, Eric Jarvi and Dennis Marble, asked at the meeting why the school district did not issue a formal request for proposals for expanded out-of-school programming or give the town’s recreation department more of an opportunity to weigh in on the change.
Hampden Town Manager Jim Chandler declined to speak about the changes before a meeting he was planning to have with RSU 22 staff Thursday.
Lyons praised Champions’ programs and said the company would hire well-trained people from this area to provide them.
He decided to seek the company’s services after hearing that families wanted more options for out-of-school programs and first notified the RSU 22 board that he was considering the company last October, he said.
However, he did not seek a vote from the board on the agreement with the company and did not put out a request for proposals because it was in his authority to make those decisions, he said.
The district is not paying anything to Champions, he said, and will even make some revenue from the company. It will also let the district make use of its school buildings during the summer, he said.
Lyons also said that district families will still be able to stick with the Hampden Recreation and YMCA programs when they are offered in other locations.
The chairwoman of the RSU 22 board, Karen Hawkes, agreed that it was in Lyons’ authority to enter into the Champions agreement and that the district’s administrators did “their due diligence” to research the company. That research included a visit to a school in Presque Isle where the company is now providing programs.
However, in response to emailed questions, Hawkes did say that administrators could have offered “better communication with the Board and the community, to help alleviate fears and proactively address questions.”