Controversy as Parks Department closes long-time preschool at Rock Ledge Ranch

       The city-subsidized Early Childhood preschool that had operated out of a building at the Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site for 30-some years closed March 31, another victim of this year's budget cuts.

The building that housed the Rock Ledge Ranch Early Childhood program is in the middle. At left is the Rock Ledge House and at right is ranch staffer John Winters with Patches, the ranch cow. The sign in foreground barred parents picking up their children from driving any farther into the historic site.
Westside Pioneer photo

       The shutdown did not occur quietly. The preschool's two teachers had written up a proposal to keep it going, unsubsidized, under the auspices of the ranch's non- profit Living History Association (LHA); in comments to the media this week, they alleged that up until a day before the closure they had gotten signals from City Parks staff as well as the LHA that their plan was acceptable.
       “I feel we've been given the runaround,” said Page Saulsbury, who taught Early Childhood's morning and afternoon classes with Anne Flemke for a total of 20 children. “Kids were crying.”
       City Parks Director Paul Butcher and LHA President Ron Wright have different versions on the closure, with both claiming that neither they nor the entities they represent had given the preschool teachers reason to be so optimistic.
       “I had told the parents in January to anticipate it closing March 31,” Butcher said. “Unfortunately in conversations with parents, Page and Anne had been providing hope that it would continue. I thought that was inappropriate.”

Page Saulsbury (right rear) and fellow teacher Anne Flemke join some of their students for ice cream on the preschool program's last day March 31. Kids are (from left) Sierra Coy, Lily Rottenborn, Noah Snell, Ellis Noel and Nola Allen.
Westside Pioneer photo

       For her part, Saulsbury said she believed Butcher had liked her plan on first presentation March 29, then turned against it at a meeting of teachers and city staff the next day. But Butcher said he had believed from first reading that the proposal was “not well thought out… Their numbers were unrealistic, there was no license, no corporation.”
       Still, at that teacher-staff meeting, Butcher left it up to the LHA to decide if it wanted to work something out with the preschool. But Wright said no. Asked about that decision afterward, he said, “I've been very consistent in saying that the LHA doesn't have the time, money or resources to be responsible for a preschool program. It will be a big enough struggle just to maintain the ranch this year.”
       He was referring to the city's termination of its subsidy for Rock Ledge after March 31. Knowing that was coming, LHA volunteers started fundraising in December, with a goal of $140,000, and they have gathered just enough in donations to keep the facility open in 2010. But the years to follow remain unknowns so the fundraising is continuing, Wright said.
       The preschool's building - sometimes known as the “Studio” - was originally built for workers during the construction of the ranch's Orchard House in 1907, when Colorado Springs founder William Palmer owned the property. A later addition roughly doubled the size of the building and added bathrooms, Wright said.
       Last year, the city subsidized nearly half of the preschool's costs (expenditures were $38,000; income was $20,000), Butcher said. Saulsbury and Flemke planned to make it self-sustaining by increasing the current six-week fee ($175) to $300, which they said is roughly equivalent to other preschools that are in less scenic locations than Rock Ledge.
       The teachers also wanted to tie the school in with the historic site, including requiring parents of students to become LHA members.
       Low attendance has been a problem. There was room for 40 students in the roughly 500-square-foot space, but only 20 students were enrolled this session, and attendance has been under capacity for several years, Saulsbury said. But she blamed that on an “extreme lack of advertising.”
       Another point of dispute concerned the use of the Studio after the school closes. Saulsbury quoted Wright as saying the LHA wants it for storage, but Wright said that's not the case, “not at all.” The ranch's 1995 Rock Ledge Ranch master plan called for the Studio to become an interpretive site, and that's the direction the LHA intends to go with it, he said.
       One more point, as noted by Butcher, was that Mary LeBrecque, the West Center's long-time Rock Ledge preschool administrator, retired as of March 31. This along with the previously noted factors and the reality that the city's Westside Center subsidy was ending then too, led to his deciding, Butcher said, that March 31 was the right time for the city to finally heed the ranch master plan.
       As for storage (chiefly of period clothing for ranch docents), space will continue to be provided for that purpose at the Westside Center, Wright and Siever said.
       Fogging up the preschool controversy is the uncertainty (at least until very recently) regarding the future of the Westside Community Center. It has traditionally administered the Rock Ledge preschool while hosting a similar, somewhat less expensive preschool. It wasn't until the City Council meetings of March 22 and 23 that it became public knowledge that City Parks is negotiating with the community action arm of Woodmen Valley Chapel to take over operations of the center as a limited liability corporation (LLC) in April.
       The secrecy inherent in the negotiations - technically, they are still not finalized - has in itself led to rumors. Some people (the Rock Ledge teachers included) mistakenly got the impression that Woodmen wanted no preschools at all. The fact is, its LLC plans later this year to upgrade the format of the center-hosted preschool into one that is licensed and geared to lower-income families, explained Dick Siever, who will be the Westside Community Center LLC director. But it is also true that Woodmen stipulated in its proposal to the city for Westside that it did not want to also administer a preschool at Rock Ledge, he said.
       Siever and Butcher provided information about another preschool to the parents in the Rock Ledge program, so they would have somewhere else to take their children after March 31.
       Saulsbury and Flemke said they hope to start another preschool elsewhere, but have nothing lined up as yet.
       At the root of all the problems, according to Wright, was the failure of the 2C ballot question in November, which would have raised property taxes enough to keep the city at 2009 revenue levels. In that case, there would have been no issues with city subsidies to the Westside Center, Rock Ledge and the Early Childhood program. “If you're going to quote me on anything, quote me on that,” he said.
       Butcher did not mention 2C, but made it clear that lack of money was an issue. “I tried to explain to Page and Anne that we [the Parks Department] are not personally going after anyone at all,” Butcher said. “We're closing pools and not picking up trash in our parks. It's not that we don't care about kids. It's where this department has to go, given the budget situation.”

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