CASHMERE – After discovering it was operating without a license, Joyful Scholars Montessori (JSM) abruptly closed its daycares both in Cashmere and Wenatchee on Dec. 28, exacerbating childcare challenges in an area grappling with limited options.
Between both daycares, 55 children between the ages of one and four years old were affected, 33 of whom were attending the Cashmere location. According to Joyful Scholars, Ten staff members were laid off.
The Cashmere daycare has been open since 2020 and has never obtained a license. The Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) confirmed that Joyful Scholars did not complete the licensing processes in 2020 or 2021, including the process to gain an initial license, of which former Executive Director Cara Hackenmiller had been aware.
However, current JSM leadership claimed to not be fully aware of the situation until Dec. 27, after a series of events led to the discovery of a cease and desist letter from the state, dated Nov. 20, 2023.
The path of discovery reportedly began when Hackenmiller was let go by the board for unrelated reasons on Dec. 21, and Brook Hinton stepped into the role of Interim Director the next day. Hinton said she had done a routine review of permits, certifications and legal documents upon taking over the role.
According to Hinton, the daycare was on her radar, as she had known about a prior complaint from the community about the daycare. When she couldn’t find the license, she called DCYF.
“The problem is once I talked to the state, we found out about the cease and desist letter, which no one had been told about. I didn't have a copy of it until she sent it to me…[I asked], “What's the emergency code for this, like how fast can I get this done?” She was like, 'You shut your doors yesterday,’” said Hinton.
Under RCW 43.216.010, a childcare provider is required to have a license if its operations exceed four hours. On Feb. 14, 2023, DCYF received a complaint that Joyful Scholars was exceeding those hours and providing unlicensed care, prompting a visit from the department to the daycare site on Feb. 16, 2023
During the visit, two Department Care Licensors and a Secretary Senior delivered a letter titled “Inquiry to Potentially Unlicensed Child Care Provider” to Grace Daniels-Spencer, an employee of Joyful Scholars.
Hackenmiller replied to the letter with a Declaration of Exemption two days later but did not provide adequate evidence to the department, according to the cease and desist letter.
The process to obtain a license can be extensive, complex, and expensive. Applicants must submit extensive paperwork such as floorplans, emergency plans, parent handbooks, policies and procedures, and more. They also must hire enough qualified staff to meet ratios, and pass inspection. The modifications required to pass can be as imperative as having proper smoke or carbon monoxide detectors, or as detailed as having absorbent material such as pea gravel at least nine inches deep under playground swings.
According to Hackenmiller, she had previously had a walk-through with a licensor and made necessary modifications, but found that the original licensor was “not a good fit.”
Hackenmiller approached the regional supervisor, and made the case that if the three and four-year-olds wanted to stay all day, they would be enrolled in half-preschool and half-daycare, so as not to exceed hours. The staff would move them from the preschool building to the daycare building, signing them out at one location and signing them in at another.
“Technically, with the state, if you look at the WAC [Washington Administrative Code], that is not full daycare because they're moving location…of course, the WACs are open to interpretation, and that’s the problem, but if it says so in the WAC, then why are we being told that those children are in full-time care if they're moving locations? So, this was one of the many issues I had. I went to the regional supervisor, and she basically said, “Well, I'm just considering that a workaround, and you need to be licensed for those children as well,” said Hackenmiller.
Hackenmiller said she had been in touch with a new licensor but did not say how far she went in the process. DCYF confirmed that Hackenmiller was working with the department to obtain a license prior to the letter; however, that process was not completed. It is unclear why.
A valid finding that the daycare was still exceeding hours was issued on Mar. 7. DCYF received another complaint on July 27, which incurred another letter of inquiry that was delivered to Joyful Scholars employee Kady Hall. A second valid finding was issued on Nov. 7.
The cease and desist letter was subsequently delivered on Nov. 20, stating the department would assess civil fees and criminal charges if the daycare did not cease child care immediately or provide proof of exemption within seven days of the letter.
However, the department told Ward Media that it would not pursue either, as current leadership had closed the daycare and was working with DCYF to obtain proper licensing.
Upon receiving the news from the DCYF, Hinton called parents, notifying them that the daycare was closed, effective immediately. Parents scrambled to get childcare, putting pressures on surrounding daycares.
“We definitely got a bunch of calls shortly after from families needing care right away. We're filled up and we now have a waiting list, and there's families that we've had to turn away,” said Ashely Soderman of TEAMS Learning Center in Cashmere.
Soderman said some children were noticeably upset, with a couple even expressing behavioral challenges due to the swift change. According to Soderman, TEAMS only had openings on Mondays and Friday when Joyful Scholars closed, making it challenging for the teachers to build trust and routine with the kids to help them through the transition.
“It's just all of a sudden the influx of a bunch of new kids, but ones that aren't here all the time, so it's harder to build that relationship with all of them at one time,” said Soderman.
On Jan. 10, the Joyful Scholars’ Board and administration hosted a meeting with parents of both the daycare and the K-12 school. The administration notified parents that it had the proper licensing to keep the school open and was working with DCYF to legally allow children who are two and a half to four years old to receive care for an entire day, given that they can do kindergarten work. Hinton said it would likely take 60 to 90 days before their license application would be approved.
Parents appeared to have minimal worry over the lack of license, showing support for the teachers and the possibility of re-enrollment. Primary concerns were focused on the school’s financial situation, which was revealed by the JSM Board during the same meeting.
The Board said it had recently been made aware of a substantial amount of debt accrued by the school but was unclear of the total. However, the Board said it needed to raise at least $40,000 in order to keep the school running through the end of the school year. The school launched a capital campaign called “Bridge the Gap” and has raised over $24,000 since December.
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