Like the hundreds of other parents displaced by the unannounced closure of Billings’ largest day care, Julie Dompier is reeling.
Ahead of the Curve Child Development Center, a state-of-the-art child care center on the West End, shut down Saturday when its co-owners taped a note to the front door and locked it, leaving some 200 families and 45 staff members confused and frustrated.
Dompier was blindsided, having recently made advance payment for a hefty August tuition bill. Like other parents, she hasn’t heard from the owners. And she too has been scrambling to find someone who can take care of her 4-year-old.
Her hardship is particularly acute: she’s a single mother, and her son has autism.
"He has issues with change, like most autistic kids," she said. "It's going to change his world."
Dompier had interviews lined up at other day care centers on Tuesday, and relatives have been able to watch her son through Wednesday.
Meanwhile, much of her son’s therapy equipment — a weighted vest, stuffed animals, a chew toy — was still locked inside the shuttered center.
"I can't calm him down sometimes when he's having a fit without his buddy or his scout bear," Dompier said.
The sign posted on the center door said arrangements would be made for families to retrieve their belongings. While teachers were reportedly able to retrieve their possessions Tuesday evening, Dompier was yet to hear from owners Brady Wagner and Carrie Orr-Wagner.
"I haven't heard a word from them," she said.
Questions still unanswered
Licensed to enroll 225 children, Ahead of the Curve was the largest day care center in the state, according to information provided by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. In an earlier Gazette report, Wagner said around 200 kids were attending.
The $3 million facility was built in 2008 and boasted more than 14,000 square feet in its main building and another 3,600-square-foot Kids Klubhouse indoor playground.
It offered state-of-the-art safety features, like webcams which allowed parents to remotely monitor classrooms and a fingerprint-based security system families said was recently installed.
But Wagner told a Gazette reporter over the weekend that the center, his and his estranged wife's dream, had never become financially viable, and operating it was a daily struggle.
“I can’t struggle anymore. The money is not there. It just has to shut down,” Wagner said.
Public documents also hint at the troubles faced by a day care center the size of an elementary school.
The state was granted a warrant in 2012 to seize more than $182,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties over the prior four years, court records show. It was unclear from the court record if that money had been recovered, and a Department of Revenue spokesperson said the company’s tax history is otherwise confidential.
The center has also been dinged by the state consistently since 2009 for protocol violations relating to its child care license. Several complaints and routine inspections turned up failures to report evidence of child abuse or to immediately notify DPHHS of a child injury that required ambulance transport, according to online records.
Ahead of the Curve was also required to correct instances of inadequate supervision, failure to report staffing changes and submission of an incomplete license renewal application a week before it was set to expire.
Several parents contacted this week, however, spoke highly of the center’s teachers and staff.
“They were absolutely amazing. They just really created little families in their classrooms and were genuinely concerned with the children and their happiness,” parent Grace Brekhus said.
Families aren’t saying the same about Wagner, who hasn’t spoken to them about the closure and apparently is holding thousands of dollars in advance tuition fees.
“We're not getting any answers,” said parent Sunny Larsen, whose son had been attending for the past year.
Before the note announcing the closure was taped to the front door, a similar sign had reminded parents that tuition was due August 1, Larsen said.
Larsen learned that Ahead of the Curve had closed through Facebook, where dozens of center families and teachers have been connecting since Saturday. She was incensed, in part because her advance tuition check had been cashed four days earlier — contrary to the note left on the door and statements Wagner made to the Gazette on Saturday.
Wagner told The Gazette Saturday that he hadn’t anticipated the need to close and would make it a priority to reimburse parents and teachers. However, he didn’t return multiple calls for comment Monday and Tuesday. Calls to the center also went unanswered.
Larsen has already called local and state offices in search of legal options.
“I just want to help these families,” Larsen said. “(Wagner) took money knowing that the services weren't going to be offered. In my opinion, that's thievery.”
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said Tuesday he hadn’t received any complaints. Nor has the state Office of Consumer Protection, though a Department of Justice spokesperson said families may file a complaint if they think they have been defrauded.
"If we do see a large volume of complaints we can initiate an investigation," John Barnes said.
Impacted families plan to meet Wednesday evening to discuss their next steps, Larsen said. She thinks they may need to file a civil suit against the day care.
“I'm just one of those types of people that when I've been had, I turn into a bulldog,” Larsen said.
Day care demand
Meanwhile, area day care managers say they have been flooded with inquires since the center closed.
"It’s been very busy. My phone's been ringing off the hook this morning," said Susan Kuntz, program manager for Community Day Care and Enrichment Center downtown.
Community Day Care, a medium-sized center in Billings, is licensed for up to 90 kids. The center is organized by age and still has some openings in its two, three, four and five-year old rooms, Kuntz said. She's also thinking about opening another room to accommodate the new demand.
Parents “are scrambling trying to find immediate care," she said. "Especially with 200 kids without having a place to go ... it still is strenuous on the families, the kids."
Managers aren’t expecting a shortage of slots for most children, but finding care for infants, evening care or care for children with special needs, like in Dompier’s case, can be tougher.
“It’s kind of like a rat race,” Dompier said.
The ripple is being felt as far as Shepherd, a 30-minute drive from Ahead of the Curve, where Kountry Kare Preschool and Daycare has enrolled a new family and spoken with several others, director Mandy Berens said.
After hearing of the closure, Happy Lanes owner Heather Tallman-Girvin posted on Facebook a discount offer for families that have been displaced. She held an open house Sunday evening that drew nine families.
Case managers at the Billings Human Resources Development Council have been contacting the 50 or so families who attended Ahead of the Curve on Best Beginnings scholarships, which provide aid for low-income families, senior program director Barb Perzinski said.
HRDC is guiding families through the process of finding another day care, Perzinski said, and assuring those with scholarships that the aid will transfer to another licensed center.
Switching day cares for the first time can be scary for families, especially when it comes without forewarning and the parent or parents both work, she said.
Families in search of day care are encouraged to contact Family Connections Montana, based in Great Falls, which operates a free statewide referral service.
The service allows families to search for day care services according to their needs, such as location, transportation or cost, said executive director Kim Hawn.
Family Connections offers other tools and tips for parents, but allows them to decide which day care is right for them.
Referral specialists are aware of the closure in Billings and will process referral requests the same day, Hawn said. Families can also access the database and narrow their search online anytime.
The center’s 40-plus former staff members are looking for new jobs as they also worry about back pay and lament that their relationships with Ahead of the Curve children have been stripped.
A check for her last 13 days of work didn’t arrive Tuesday, teacher-aide Jessica Eagle said.
Eagle visited a job service and said other day care centers have been reaching out to the employees. She’s less worried about finding new employment now than she was over the weekend.
Still, she is disappointed to have been separated from her little ones without warning.
“They were our kids and to not be able to say goodbye and to just know that you're not going to see most of them again is hard,” she said.
Brekhus said the closure took a toll on her 2-year-old as well. She recorded a video and posted it to Facebook so he and a 6-year-old alum could say goodbye to their teachers.
“He's crying because his school is closed,” she said. “I wanted to give them a chance for that closure that they couldn't get.”
“I cried when I saw the video,” Eagle said. “That was special for a lot of people.”