The debate over private versus church-based child daycare centers came to the forefront Tuesday when the Board of Commissioners turned down a special use permit application by Ebenezer United Methodist Church for a daycare in a 2-0 vote. Commissioner JaNice Van Ness, who owns Peachtree Academy daycare and private school, abstained from the vote.
Private daycare owners in the county say faith-based programs do not contribute to the local tax coffers and have an unfair advantage in the free market because they are tax-exempt, have other funding sources and more options to get around regulations. Faith organization-based daycare programs counter that they are job creators as well because they hire teachers and staff for their programs and are subjected to the same guidelines from Bright from the Start, the state body that licenses pre-K and early childcare programs.
Half-day programs, which most of Rockdale's church daycares fall under, are not required to have all the certifications that full-day programs have but are required to register with the state.
Out of 53 full-day pre-K programs licensed by Bright from the Start in Rockdale, it appears only three are church-based - Voices of Faith, Heritage Hills Baptist and Springfield Christian Academy.
Commissioners said it was a tough decision and they heard from many community members on this issue both in favor and against Ebenezer UMC's application and church-based daycare programs in general.
Commissioner Oz Nesbitt said, "With all due respect, we appreciate all the work our churches are doing from the community. However, this is about opportunity and looking at the community as a whole."
"You've elected us to make tough decisions. This is one of those tough decisions... I hope in all that I'm saying you understand whereas I support the faith based community, this is one of those decisions to support free enterprise and those folks who are creating jobs."
Chairman Richard Oden, who voted with Nesbitt to turn down the Ebenezer UMC application, said he was in support of churches and enjoyed churches. "At the same time we have to maintain the balance in the community."
"It's been an interesting challenge to look at this situation in its clarity," Oden said. He understood the church was responding to the needs of local parents, he said, and also considered that faith-based entities are tax-exempt while private, for-profit childcare businesses are not. "That concerns me as to how we continue to balance the pendulum so it's fair and equitable."
Ebenezer UMC Administrator Paige Rogers said she was disappointed about the BOC's decision.
"We've worked so hard to get to this point. We've tried to do everything right," she said. Ebenezer UMC has had a half-day pre-K program for 26 years, she pointed out. "Things have changed in our community. A half day program doesn't work for the people around us and a lot of our church members who have to work full time."
All their teachers are certified, said Rogers, and the church was in the middle of applying for a license with Bright from the Start, which is now halted because of the BOC's permit denial.
She said the church will appeal the decision, which will be in Superior Court, because the commissioners did not base their decision on what was required in the county ordinances.
Van Ness abstained from the vote and declined to talk about the issue afterwards. But the private school owner and founder has questioned county staffers on the legitimacy of pre-K and kindergarten programs at places such as Young American Christian Academy, Conyers First Baptist, Heritage Hills Baptist, and Epiphany Lutheran Church.
In the weeks leading up to the March 25 public hearing and the April 8 vote, Van Ness sent out emails to community leaders and business owners urging them to contact the commissioners to protest Ebenezer UMC's application.
Elisa Frey Jackson, owner of the private daycare Kids-R-Kids at Honey Creek, who is also Van Ness's sister, said she had talked to a number of private daycare owners and all were concerned about Ebenezer UMC's daycare application and church-based daycares.
"It could put us out of business," Frey Jackson said. The teachers and employees she talked to, "There're terrified they're going to lose their jobs if these faith schools open up."
It costs money to run a good daycare and pre-school program, she said, and faith organization-based daycares can charge less because they don't have the cost of paying taxes and they have funding from other sources. "If there were a need for more educational facilities I could understand it," she said. But she said many of the existing private daycare businesses have experienced fewer children attending and smaller classes.
Laura Kulp, director of the Conyers First Baptist Early Learning Center, which operates a half-day pre-K and kindergarten, said faith-based organizations that operate preschools have to follow the same guidelines as private daycares and are required to be registered with Bright from the Start, even if they're not full-day programs.
"Our teachers are trained," she said. "We have guidelines too." First Baptist' teachers attend the workshops and certification programs, she said. "We just don't have to, but a good facility does." Conyers First Baptist has had a preschool program for about 50 years and recently started a kindergarten class a couple years ago.
Bright from the Start spokesperson Reg Griffin said all Georgia pre-K programs, which are lottery funded, follow the same regulations; about half of those Georgia pre-K programs are located in public schools. There are pre-K programs that are not Georgia pre-K programs. "We would still regulate them and supervise them from the standpoint that they're offering childcare," he said.
Discovery Point Child Development Center owner Beverly Johnson declined to comment on the record regarding faith-organization based versus private childcare, but acknowleged it was a fraught, difficult subject. She pointed out that Discovery Point was regulated by the state on the care of children.
Seventh Day Adventist
The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Conyers is in the process of applying for a special use permit to open a daycare facility.
The church recently moved into 3001 Old Salem Road, the former facility of Springfield Baptist, which had operated a daycare. Pastor John Strickland and church representatives said at the Planning Commission meeting Thursday that the daycare would be a service to the families in the surrounding community. "As a church we wanted to be in a situation where we could affect our community in a positive way," said church member John Gibbs.
Nine people spoke in favor of the permit application and two people spoke against it.
Marlene Towell Bryan and her husband Stanley Bryan, who live next to Seventh Day Adventist Church, oppose the daycare and pointed out that church members don't live in the surrounding community and don't have to deal with the daily hassle, such as they experienced with the previous church.
The Rockdale-Conyers Planning Commission recommended approval.
The BOC is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the application April 22, 9 a.m., and vote on the matter May 13, 10 a.m.