Parents and staff at the Hawks Nest Early Learning Center have been stunned since learning that the day care center at Bozeman High School serving school district employees is to be closed down, to save money in a time of budget cuts.

The news came as a surprise last week in a letter to parents, saying the Bozeman School District remains committed to providing day care for teenage student parents, but that day care for school employees would close when school ends in June.

It left eight day-care employees wondering whether they’ll still have jobs, while families of 25 infants, toddlers and preschoolers wonder where they will find quality day care.

“Blindsided,” one staff member said Monday, asking not to be named. “Kids here are flourishing. We have happy kids, happy parents, happy staff. There’s a waiting list.”

Bozeman Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said the district can’t continue a day care center for employees that is costing the general fund about $100,000 this year, not in a time of scarcity and not when it doesn’t serve the central mission of educating students.

When school officials created Hawks Nest two years ago, Miller said, they thought it would not only break even, but also earn enough to pay for the teen parent day care for Bridger Alternative Program students.

“We’ve given it a good go for two years,” Miller said. “It’s just not going to work.”

Hawks Nest costs roughly $276,000 a year, and revenues fall about $100,000 short, Miller said.

That’s so even though employees pay $32 to $35 a day, or roughly $750 per month. Student parents qualify for state scholarships and pay just a few dollars.

Miller said the problem is that fees charged employees are already at the high end of the scale compared to private day cares. But private day cares – unlike the school district — don’t pay their employees health insurance or other benefits.

Miller and district officials told the School Board last month that even if voters approve the $235,000 property tax increase requested on the May 8 ballot to help run the schools next year, there will be budget shortages.

Depending on what happens to a dispute being negotiated in Helena, the Bozeman School District expects to fall either $632,000 or $811,000 short of what it would need to keep all existing programs next year in the elementary district. Bozeman’s high school district is facing budget shortages of $224,000 to $326,000.

There has been no discussion at School Board meetings of where budget cuts may fall.

One parent, who asked not to be named, said his family “treasures” the Hawks Nest environment, complained the decision had been “extremely secretive” and said the staff had not even received a phone call about it.

The Young Parents Program started in 1993 as part of the Bridger Alternative Program for Bozeman High students at risk of dropping out because of pregnancy or other problems. It was intended to help teach young men and women parenting skills and provide a supportive day care so pregnant teens and new moms could finish high school.

Since then, 113 high school parents have participated and 95 have earned diplomas or GED equivalents.

In 2010 the Bridger program and day care were moved from Willson School to the south end of Bozeman High School. The day care was expanded and opened for the first time to school district employees.

Hawks Nest currently serves 10 infants and toddlers, and 15 preschoolers ages 2 to 5. Two children are Bridger teens’ children and another two are recent graduates’ children. The day care has 16 families on a waiting list.

The closure will be especially tough on families with newborns or expecting babies, because of long waiting lists for infants at most private day cares, one staffer said.

Hawks Nest does benefit the education of high school students, one argued. “What better way to teach teenage (parents) than to have the center here, to see kids playing in the courtyard, to see how to handle crying children.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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