A decision by Siskin Children's Institute to shut down one of its two locations has changed the future for dozens of parents who rely on the facility.
Our own Latricia Thomas is in that group -- her daughter Lila attends the school that will soon be closed.
We first told you about Siskin's decision earlier this week. The plan is to shut down the Gunbarrel Road location on May 30th.
"It's unbelievable that they can just in three months’ time say yeah we're closing our doors," says parent Carmen Penney.
Penney has two children at the Siskin Early Learning Center on Gunbarrel Road, and one of them has Down syndrome. She never saw this decision coming.
"We had no say in this decision, and that's what a lot of us are fighting for. We're asking to go before the board to talk with them to understand how this decision was made," says Penney.
The Penney family is not alone. 116 children will be affected by the shutdown. Jessica Doolittle takes her special needs child to the Center because it's centrally located near the state line.
"There's nowhere like Siskin in Georgia. The only place that's really good like that for him is Siskin, and now we don't have that option," says Doolittle.
Siskin's director says the problem is money.
"When you combine decreased funds with fewer children with special needs, we've had to make a really tough decision," says director John Farrimond.
That tough decision was to consolidate everything in the remaining facility in downtown Chattanooga.
12 students with special needs will get priority in the relocation, but for more than a hundred others, a mix of typically developing children and those with special needs, Siskin can provide no guarantee.
"We are looking into adding more classrooms here in the downtown center and we're also going to be talking with people to try to create community based programs, but at this time those are not in place," says Farrimond.
Nor is there any guarantee for the nearly 40 teachers at the East Brainerd center.
"We're trying to keep as many as we can," says Farrimond.
Part of the funding for the center comes from Hamilton County department of education, a pre-school partner with Siskin for years.
"I was surprised, but I did get a call from Mr. Farrimond after the fact and he did apologize for not contacting me previously," says Margaret Abernathy, Hamilton County Schools director of exceptional education.
Abernathy says the school system might have been able to give more money to help keep the school open -- if they were involved in the decision.
As for parents' request for a meeting, Siskin's, director John Farrimond says one has not been scheduled.
The reason for the closing, according to Siskin's director, is mostly due to the center having a deficit of nearly $300,000.
Late Thursday night, we got this letter from the chairman of the Siskin board of directors:
Monday was without question my hardest and most trying day as a Siskin Board member in the last six years.
The Institute made a decision to close down a program that we thought several years ago would serve as a model for community based learning centers for children with special needs.
Just like the decision to start the East Brainerd program, closing it down was a considered, deliberated decision of our Board.
The issues surrounding East Brainerd started drawing attention over two years ago.
The task force was just the most recent attempt by the Board to find a solution for the program.
We are a mission driven organization dedicated to serving the needs of children, but especially children with special needs.
Our Board members are parents, grandparents and direct decendents of Mose and Garrison Siskin. Many of the members of the board have family members or people they love who have special needs.
My wife is a special education teacher. We have educators, financial managers, entrepreneurs and parents on our board and committees.
The Institute has world-class researchers and experts in early childhood education on our staff and leadership team.
The board brought all the resources at our command to try to find a solution that would make the program at East Brainerd work in a manner consistent with our mission.
John Farrimond has addressed the specific program and financial issues that led to the decision to close the East Brainerd early learning center.
In short, because of referral sources we do not control and changing educational models that did not exist when we started the East Brainerd school, we saw no way to continue the program in its current configuration that would carry out our mission and justify the resources we had allocated to that program.
Siskin and its supporters have funded an operating deficit of over $2,000,000 since we opened East Brainerd. Every scenario we looked at in terms of tuition increases and enrollment variations still produced an annual operating deficit in excess of $220,000 – and this with no realistic promise we will serve more special needs children. Tuition increases and fundraising will not cure the problem and will not further our mission.
During this difficult period, and because of the emotion and angst this decision has caused, please understand where our priorities as a Board must be. The Institute has not given up serving the East Brainerd community. We have to “reinvent” a program and model that works for everyone and carries out our mission. Leadership has already started exploring this core programmatic change. We do not have the ability, due to many factors other than funding, to immediately transition from one program to another before the beginning of another school year. There will be time required to develop the best program that matches educational and family needs. We pride ourselves on meeting or exceeding the best early childhood practices and models. The board has dedicated an enormous amount of time, energy and resources to assure that we carry out our mission in a responsible manner. The Institute will work diligently to create programs that continue to fulfill our mission and benefit the children and families of our community.
F. Scott LeRoy
By Jerry Askin