Metro

Amid budget crunch, UMass Boston to close day-care center

The UMass Boston Early Learning Center.
Kiana Cole for The Boston Globe
The UMass Boston Early Learning Center.

The University of Massachusetts Boston will close a day-care center that serves the children of faculty and students along with poor families in Dorchester and South Boston, the cash-strapped university announced Thursday evening to the outrage of parents.

The Early Learning Center will close Dec. 29. A college spokesman said the day care ran a $550,000 deficit last year and has run deficits in the past. The struggling university can no longer afford to subsidize it, he said.

The decision infuriated parents who were blindsided with the news when they arrived Thursday evening to pick up their toddlers. Many began to cry.

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“I’m heartbroken,” said Meredith Joacine, a mother and UMass Boston student. “I understand cost issues, but I feel like this should not be on the chopping block.”

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UMass Boston is in the midst of a major budget crisis. It was on track to run a $30 million deficit for the fiscal year that just ended, but that gap was reduced to $10 million. A new fiscal year began July 1, however, and without cuts the school will again face a large gap.

The shuttering is the first major budget cut by interim university chancellor Barry Mills, who took over on July 1 from longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley.

The day-care center was always intended to be self-sustaining but operating costs outstripped revenue, according to a press release issued Thursday by a UMass Boston spokesman. During the past fiscal year the center was staffed by nine UMass Boston employees and served 55 children, 15 of whom were children of students or staff.

UMass Boston, a majority-minority campus, serves a student body that includes many low-income parents who take classes while working full time. Families said the reason so few staff or students used the center was because it was poorly advertised and virtually unknown.

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“The decision is one that was not made easily but, unfortunately, is necessary by the need to address budgetary challenges,” wrote James Overton, senior associate vice chancellor for student affairs, in a letter distributed to parents.

Families were especially frustrated to learn the news because they said they had feared this would happen for weeks and asked for information but got nowhere. They invited Mills to tour the center but got no response, they said.

“Did nobody think about the optics of this being the very first thing that they cut?” said Shannon Gerber, a UMass Boston employee who sends her children, ages 3 and 5, to the center. “It looks really bad, and I’m glad that it looks really bad because they deserve to look bad.”

The parents also wondered about the timing of the announcement. Gerber and others had begun gathering signatures for a petition to protect the center and had scheduled a meeting on Friday with members of campus unions to strategize.

“It’s really outrageous,” said Tom Goodkind, president of the professional staff union at the university. “Starting these cuts at the bottom instead of at the top, I think, is a huge statement of misplaced priority.”

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Robert Connolly, a university spokesman, said the announcement came Thursday because Friday is the deadline for an early retirement program for UMass staff, and administrators wanted day-care workers to know they will lose their jobs.

He said the university is evaluating all programs to determine which align with the university’s core mission. But parents said it is important to offer child care at a school where so many students are commuters. The center also employs work-study students.

“Instead of dropping the bomb that this is cut, couldn’t there be dialogue and conversation about how to improve the ELC and serve UMass Boston’s mission because it’s directly in line with that,” said Matthew Power-Koch, a UMass employee and Dorchester resident who had just picked his 2-year-old daughter up. He said parents will fight the decision.

The shutdown comes at a time when many city and state leaders have advocated for universal high-quality preschool education, though public funding for such programs remains elusive.

According to state data available publicly online, staff at the UMass Boston center make between $55,000 and $64,000 annually. Several staff had been there 10 years or more, one for 35.

Goodkind said the center was formerly located in the university’s old science building but was moved off campus because it was deemed unsafe after an explosion in a chemistry lab. He said the center pays rent to the nearby Harbor Point housing complex where it is located. Goodkind questioned why the center was not moved into one of the three new academic buildings the school has built recently.

The center charges $64 a day for toddlers and $52 a day for preschool-aged children, prices that are far more affordable than many other centers in the city. The program also offers discounted rates to low-income children and provides food during the day and to take home, parents said.

As parents left the center they were eager to describe how much it means to their families.

Karina Perez, a Dorchester resident and single mother, said her 9-year-old went to the center, along with her 2-year-old Ethan, who is currently enrolled. Perez said she has no idea where Ethan will go in December.

“Do you know how hard it is to get into day care?” she said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.