After hours on the phone, Rhonda McMeekin sat in her car Friday morning and broke down crying.
Since the previous evening, the mother of two has been frantically calling daycare centres around the city in a desperate effort to find child care for her young sons.
“I’m just so frustrated,” she said, with a quiver in her voice. “I honestly have no clue what I’m going to do if I can’t find anything.”
McMeekin’s boys, Seamus, 2, and Finnegan, 4, had just secured spots at the MAX daycare centre at St. Michael and All Angels Parish in Kenmount Terrace Wednesday.
However, just a day later, McMeekin was one of 30 families who received the shocking news that the daycare — which had been operating there since January 2015 — will close as of Dec. 21.
A letter from MAX Arts, Athletics, Wellness CEO Patrick Griffin was sent to parents Thursday, informing them of the impending closure.
According to the letter, obtained by The Telegram, the parish had recently advised MAX it won’t renew the lease to rent the space.
“This was unexpected,” the letter states. “We explored other neighbourhood locations, but unfortunately, none met the requirements to operate a licensed child-care centre.”
It then listed three other nearby daycare facilities parents could contact.
The news came as quite a blow to McMeekin and other parents, many of whom are left scrambling to find alternative child-care arrangements within a month.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to find care for a toddler in a regulated centre in this city,” said McMeekin, who, along with her husband, works full-time and would prefer to keep their boys together at the same centre.
“I have extraordinary anxiety (about) who looks after my children.”
Aside from daycare, it’s only ever been their grandparents who have looked after them.
“But my parents are aging and tired. They don’t have it in them to chase around two small children. They were excited when we had secured a spot at the daycare.”
Not only is the Max daycare centre conveniently located on McMeekin’s direct route to work, she was impressed with the staff, who, she said, kept it well-maintained and gave tremendous care to the children.
“It really is just the perfect spot for my family,” she said. “I just feel so terrible for the staff who are out of the job just before Christmas.”
Sara Shears, director of the MAX daycare centre, said she and the other five staff members were floored when Griffin came to the centre Thursday afternoon to inform them the centre will close.
“I had absolutely zero indication. I had no idea,” Shears said. “The day before, I was advertising to take more kids. I had accepted more kids that morning.
Shears said she feels terrible for the parents and is also disappointed the company didn’t make plans at their other facilities for her and other staff.
“I didn’t think that I would be put in this situation,” said Shears, who has worked at daycares since 2002. “I’ve done a lot of extra time for the company, done a lot of work. Now this. I was told I was finished.”
Rent at issue
So, just what happened that the lease wasn’t renewed?
That depends on whom you talk to.
According to Griffin, it was the parish’s decision.
“The parish was seeking a new arrangement that would have increased our costs,” said Griffin, explaining that they had been in negotiations with the parish throughout the year. “Given that, it simply did not make economic sense to continue there. … It would have been a significant operating loss for MAX.”
He wouldn’t go into more detail, but said the parish had other plans for the space for more than a daycare.
“It became clear to us that they appear to have a vision for the space that does not include a child-care (centre) being there every day of the year,” Griffin said. “And with an arrangement that would’ve increased our costs, we came to the very disappointing decision that we will have to move on.”
Griffin said they worked hard to find a solution, and sought the help of realtors to look for a facility that would meet the stringent regulations associated with operating a licensed child-care centre. That included such things as playground space, kitchen space and a specific square footage.
“We simply didn’t find it,” said Griffin, who noted MAX has its own facilities at other locations. “We looked at existing buildings, we looked at buildings that were under construction, and nothing met what we would need.”
Griffin said he feels badly for the staff and families.
“It’s not something we wanted to have happen,” he said. “It’s not what we’re about. … We worked to avoid this.”
Some parents had expressed anger when they found out parishioners had been notified about the closure 10 days ago, while they just received word Thursday.
Griffin said, “Why weren’t they notified then? The reason was we hadn’t decided then that we didn’t have a solution for St. Michael’s.
“Once we knew this was not going to work, we wanted to tell parents and staff as soon as possible, which was yesterday. I was receiving information on real estate options as recently as yesterday morning. When the last Hail Mary ideas didn’t work, we knew … we’ve got to have some integrity as much as possible and just give everyone as much notice as soon as possible to find alternative care.”
However, Rev. Fr. Jonathan Rowe said the parish would have gladly renewed the lease under the present terms of the agreement and it was MAX representatives who didn’t want that. He said MAX gave that indication as early as March.
“They wanted to go back to the drawing board to look at hammering out a new lease,” Rowe said. “We would’ve been quite happy to keep them on with exactly the same terms that they had. They came to us looking for a reduction in their rent.
“And after seven months of negotiating to try and make something work out, ultimately they came to the point where they didn’t think they could accept our final offer.”
Rowe said a concerned parent forwarded to him the letter parents received from MAX.
“I read it, said, ‘Wow, this is not quite the version of the story as I’ve seen it,’” Rowe said.
“It’s disappointing that that’s the way they’re playing it.”
Rowe said they did speak to MAX representatives about the parish using the space for sales, suppers, mission work, outreach programs and other events during times when the daycare wasn’t using it.
“When they had talked about a reduction in rent, we wanted to talk about how can we better use our space that currently, right now, is full of daycare equipment even when the daycare is not in operation,” he said.
“That was part of the conversation.”
When asked about MAX’s increased operational costs, Rowe said, “I really couldn’t say any more than that.”
As for the parish announcing the daycare closure to parishioners well before parents of children in the daycare even knew, Rowe said it was well after MAX had rejected their final offer.
He said it was early October when the parish made another offer to MAX, informing them it would be the final offer, “knowing that time was getting short and we had to move. We had to wrap something up.”
He said MAX rejected that offer soon after that.
“About a week after they rejected that final offer,” Rowe said, “we updated the parish to let them know. I’d have to check my calendar, but that was on Sunday, around mid-October.”
He said the parish committee will meet Wednesday evening to discuss what they’ll do with the space.
Rowe also feels badly for the families affected by the daycare’s closure.
“One of the things that has been really, really hard is knowing there’s a significant number of families who are really affected by this,” Rowe said.
“We’re sorry to be losing a tenant, but I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the parents who are now, in the last few weeks before Christmas, having to scramble to find new arrangements for child care.”