Editor‘s note: This updated version of the story corrects the spelling of Ioan Duca.
University of Toledo’s decision to contract with a for-profit child-care provider has generated criticism on campus and means Toledo Public Schools won’t partner with the university for Head Start.
La Petite Academy, a child-care company that is part of Novi, Mich.-based Learning Care Group, was awarded a contract earlier this month to run the university’s on-campus child-care center. The contract was awarded after competitive bidding that pitted La Petite against Toledo Day Nursery, a local nonprofit.
Learning Care’s first contact with UT over that initial contract was aided by a former University of Toledo administrator who had close ties to Scott Scarborough, who was UT’s provost at the time and now is president of the University of Akron.
La Petite took over child-care operations at UT in December, after Apple Tree Nursery ran into financial difficulties and folded. The December contract was for six months. Apple Tree provided child care on campus for students, staff, and community members for years and was highly rated by the state.
University officials said that the bidding process was fair and that La Petite’s status as temporary provider did not give it advantage over Toledo Day for the long-term contract. The university had three staff members score bids, and La Petite scored higher on average than Toledo Day, according to documents provided to The Blade.
Bid scoring is subjective. For instance, Marcia Culling, business manager for student affairs, said while the request for proposals asked for three references, and each entity provided three, she rated La Petite’s bid higher because it included comments from parents who have used the center.
“Both of these organizations presented high quality proposals. La Petite has the edge in some areas,” said Kaye Patten Wallace, UT’s vice president for student affairs. “I can say that in terms of La Petite providing child care on this campus, the parents and the children have found it more than satisfactory.”
Toledo Day Nursery officials said they believed the bid process was fair.
“We wrote the best we could and presented who we are and how long we have been in Toledo and the quality that we bring to the table,” said Pat Scheuer, director of the nursery. “They chose the other partner because they like what they do.”
Toledo Day Nursery is a partner with TPS on its federal Head Start grant, and the district supported the company’s bid over La Petite. The district said it won’t partner with La Petite; Head Start had not been available at Apple Tree, so the program would have been new at UT.
Amy Allen, who heads early childhood and special education for TPS, said that the district would not partner with La Petite on Head Start because of the company’s low rankings on state’s five-star Step Up To Quality program, which is a rating system for child-care centers and because it was an out-of-town, for-profit company. Head Start, she said, is about helping local children but also building local capacity.
“We weren’t tied to Toledo Day,” Ms. Allen said. “We were tied to a high-quality, local program.”
Learning Care has several dozen child-care facilities in Ohio. Most have either one or no stars on the Step Up To Quality ranking. Will Spurgeon, vice president of operations, defended the company’s record, and said that La Petite plans to apply for a five-star ranking, which Apple Tree held.
“We are absolutely committed to operating schools of excellence,” Mr. Spurgeon said.
La Petite hired the majority of Apple Tree’s staff and kept the same programming, he said.
The company’s Step Up To Quality rankings and inspection reports were distributed by some in the UT community and by some Apple Tree parents last year. Linda Marie Rouillard, who at the time was president of UT’s Faculty Senate, criticized the decision to hire La Petite, saying that parents had opposed contracting with the company last year.
“We are talking about children’s welfare,” Ms. Rouillard said. “You go with the best. You don’t go with a contact with a former employee.”
Apple Tree’s closure itself adds to hard feelings for some. The school struggled financially, and UT stopped providing financial aid in recent years. UT faculty members who were board members of Apple Tree proposed a merger options with a UT early learning center but were rebuffed by Mr. Scarborough. The center closed in November, and La Petite got a contract in December.
How La Petite got its initial contract when Apple Tree folded has also raised questions. University officials at the time said they had a sense of urgency to find a provider to replace Apple Tree so that service was not interrupted.
Ms. Patten Wallace said she went to a lunch meeting with Mr. Scarborough, Mr. Spurgeon, and Ioan Duca, who at the time was executive director of client experience for Learning Care. Mr. Duca worked for UT for several years until January, 2013, when he was given a 90-day notice and told to turn in his UT property. Personnel records give no reason why he was let go by the university.
Mr. Spurgeon said that Mr. Duca made the initial introduction to UT officials for the company.
Mr. Duca and Mr. Scarborough had a close relationship at UT; Mr. Scarborough is listed in university records relating to late-2011 disciplinary hearings against Mr. Duca for allegedly accepting gifts against university policy.
Mr. Duca recently left Learning Care, the company said, though Learning Care officials would not specify why he left the company. Attempts to reach Mr. Duca and Mr. Scarborough were unsuccessful.
Ms. Patten Wallace said Apple Tree’s closure was bound to cause some to question whom UT chose as a replacement.
“No matter who came in, that was going to be the perception,” she said.