What financial model will sustain Barrett Early Learning Center?

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Barrett Early Learning Center has been serving low-income families since the 1930s. Photo: Annalee Grant Barrett Early Learning Center has been serving low-income families since the 1930s. Photo: Annalee Grant

Since forming last month, Barrett Early Learning Center’s new board of directors has raised $30,000 in a fundraising effort that began after the former board announced that the 80-year-old preschool on Ridge Road would close due to cash flow issues and delayed reimbursements from the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS). More than a dozen parents and community members came together to salvage the historical center, which caters to low-income families in nearby neighborhoods, and the same question is on everyone’s mind: Will Barrett be able to survive long-term?

“Centers like Barrett have a unique challenge, where they’re balancing the [ability] to provide child care services to a community with low-income families, without entering into the red or raising rates through the roof,” said Child Care Aware Senior Policy Advisor Michelle McCready. “Only one out of six families that are eligible for assistance actually receive it, therefore the center absorbs what the parent can’t pay. This is an unsustainable model.”

McCready said financial burdens are not uncommon for centers like Barrett that fill a specific niche in the community, and she’s seen success in networks of centers sharing administrative responsibilities through a central system to save time and money.

Barrett operates on an annual budget of $250-280,000, most of which is covered by tuition and fees, and previous members of the five-person board admit that fundraising was not their strength. A new board of more than a dozen members, which formed at an emergency meeting about two weeks after the announcement of the center’s closure, is aggressively seeking community funding and hopes to establish a permanent position to cover finances and bookkeeping.

Last Saturday, a benefit lunch at Maya raised more than $2,000, and treasurer Lauren McAdams, member of the Junior League and mother of a 2-year-old, said the newly formed board has been doing a lot of organizational work to establish a long-term plan for bringing in money. Finance and fundraising committees are in the making, she said, and the board plans to create an annual fundraising campaign with one large event each year like the Boys & Girls Club’s annual gala.

The previous board said a cumbersome new payment system utilizing swipe cards implemented by the VDSS caused the center’s financial crisis. Technical glitches made it difficult for parents and staff to use the system properly, and reimbursements were often delayed, forcing the board to take out a line of credit to stay on top of monthly bills. Now, according to McAdams, the new board plans to assign one person the task of communicating with VDSS regularly to smooth out the reimbursement process.

Former board president Carlos Armengol, who served on the board for a decade, said he’s sorry no one came out sooner to support Barrett, but he’s “delighted that people were finally willing to come out of the woodwork and help.”

“The center will only survive as long as the community is willing to support it,” he said. “Without that support, it will not be sustainable.”

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