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UMass Boston exploring ways to save day-care center

The UMass Boston day-care center.Kiana Cole for the Boston Globe

Amid outcry from furious parents over the impending closure of a campus day-care center, UMass Boston interim chancellor Barry Mills changed course Friday, vowing to explore ways to save it.

Mills stopped short of reversing his decision to close the center, which was announced late Thursday. But he said he will consider allowing a third-party provider, rather than the university, to run it.

The switch came late Friday after a group of parents met for more than two hours to discuss ways to fight the closure, and after one University of Massachusetts trustee balked at the move and also pledged to help save the day care.

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“We are exploring this course . . . and are hopeful that the children now being served at the Early Learning Center will continue to receive high-quality care,” Mills said in a statement.

The commotion over the day care began Thursday night when campus administrators stunned parents by telling them the center would close Dec. 29 as a result of the university budget crisis. The day care ran a $550,000 deficit last fiscal year and is on track to do the same this year, they said.

Administrators said that because only 15 of the 55 children at the center are children of UMass students and staff, the center does not advance the school’s core mission. The center is also open to the wider community, and 34 students qualify for state support for needy families, according to the university.

The closure is the first major budget cut by Mills, who earns $250,000 and took over July 1 from longtime chancellor J. Keith Motley, who resigned earlier this year and is now on sabbatical, earning $240,000.

Mills is working to resolve a $30 million annual budget deficit.

UMass Boston is a majority-minority school that serves a large number of commuter students. Many are low-income, immigrant, and first-generation students who juggle their school work with families and jobs.

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The center’s closure infuriated parents who said they have repeatedly requested a meeting with Mills to no avail. Many worried about finding new day-care options by the time the center closes. Many centers have wait lists more than a year long.

When parents emerged from their meeting Friday, they said they had a plan and three demands. They want the university to rescind the closure, fully staff the center, and grant them a meeting with Mills. “We’re fighting this; this is not over,” said Shannon Gerber, a UMass employee whose two children attend the center.

Parents said they received an explosion of feedback on Friday from other parents, community members; and even parents on the day-care wait list who offered to help.

The center charges $64 a day for toddlers and $52 a day for preschoolers, prices that are more affordable than many other centers in the city.

UMass board member Philip Johnston called the closure a mistake and said on Friday morning he had called people in the day-care industry to see if they would be interested in running the center.

“We should do everything we can to save that program,” said Johnston, a former state secretary of human services who said he understands the importance of affordable day care for parents who work and study.

Johnston said the financial model of day cares is difficult. He said the center may need philanthropic support and pledged to help secure it.

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UMass Trustees Board chairman Rob Manning was less optimistic.

“There are going to be a lot of unpopular and difficult decisions that will be made to balance the budget on the Boston campus. I’ve been involved in many turnarounds, and this is not unusual,” Manning said in a text message on Friday.

The employee union is also involved in this matter. Ten day-care workers are staff union members, said union president Tom Goodkind. Center workers make between $35,000 and $64,000 annually, he said. He said privatizing the center would harm its quality and said it should not be penalized because of the university’s deficit.

Fifteen work-study students work at the center as well as 17 students from Jumpstart, a national program that pays college students to work with low-income preschoolers. Other academic departments at the university also work with the day-care students, parents said.

The Early Learning Center was founded in a YWCA in 1972 where it cared for 20 children, according to the university. In 1975, it moved to the Columbia Point campus and doubled in size. In 1988, it moved to the Harbor Point housing complex adjacent to campus.

The center pays $79,500 annually in rent to Corcoran Jennison Companies, which owns the housing complex, according to the university.

Several other UMass campuses operate day-care centers but others in the area have closed recently. UMass Amherst runs its own center, while the medical school in Worcester contracts with a third-party provider. UMass Dartmouth’s center closed in 2009. UMass Lowell does not have a center, according to a spokeswoman.

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Top lawmakers this year trumpeted the importance of early education but when asked Friday about the closure, they had little to say.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who in February called for more early education workers, said only that the speaker received no notice of the closure.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.