New Director Faces Budget Crisis at OCC

Jenny Scarborough
New Director Faces Budget Crisis at OCC

Recently hired Ocracoke Child Care Director Kristen Lord Lucas knows the job comes with challenges.

After moving to Ocracoke in 2008, Kristen worked as a lead teacher at the child care center for 18 months, and she has served on the board for the past two years. When Director Jenn Daniels resigned to accept the position of pre-K teacher at Ocracoke School, Kristen decided to apply.

"I thought, I'll step up if they really need someone," said Kristen, "but then I couldn't stop thinking about it, and I realized I really wanted the job."

"We were lucky to have the candidates we did because of time constraints," said OCC Board chair Marissa Gross. "Kristen is very fresh, motivated and positive. She brings new ideas and energy to the job."

Kristen received an education degree from Penn State, and studied early childhood education with the intention of teaching.

Day care teacher Karen Ritchie is "so excited" to have a "happy new smiling face" as part of their small staff.

Former Director Jenn remains heavily invested in the center. She replaced Kristen on the board, and has been volunteering time after her classroom day ends to help train Kristen.

The Director is responsible for daily operations of the center, scheduling staff and students, ordering, accounting, hiring and billing. Kristen is also tasked with maintaining OCC's high rating, which means meeting the standards outlined by –prepare yourself – the government.

"We have to have 30 blocks in each room, ten each of three sets of certain kinds of blocks," which vary depending on age, laughed Kristen. "It's crazy," she said, "but I knew about the bureaucracy coming in." Each classroom must also have prescribed numbers of specific types of dolls and other things that used to be called toys but are now tools.

Kristen looks forward to the growth that will come with her new position, and the opportunity to do "meaningful work" on Ocracoke. "It's good to be doing something with my mind. I'm just a dork. I like school and learning. I've already signed up for two classes just to help the center," she said.

Financial solvency is the largest challenge facing OCC, which is run by a voluntary non-profit board.

"We need $30,000 more [per year] just to be okay," said Marissa. "We have not been able to provide raises to the very dedicated staff for years. They deserve raises. In my opinion, they do one of the most difficult jobs on the island. They could all quit and get other jobs and make more. If any one of them quit that would be it. If the day care closes down the entire community is affected."

Starting pay at OCC is $8 an hour. The job includes health care and some paid leave. Enrollment at the center drops each winter when parents are laid off from seasonal island jobs, and the Director and Board must decide whether to lay off teachers. With teacher Samantha Vandermyde moving, they will not have any lay-offs this year, said Kristen. "We'll be hiring again in the spring," she added.

There are currently about 20 students enrolled full time. That number will dwindle as winter approaches. The budget generally balances out by November, due in part to vacationing parents who pay the center for part, half, or full day care for their children. It drops to "a big fat negative" by January, and stays in the hole until June, said Marissa, who has served on the OCC Board for six years. A previous treasurer told Marissa "that with these numbers, it's not going to happen."

"Without community help we can't keep surviving. I don't think the community realizes how much [money] is needed," said Kristen.

As a former lead day care teacher, Kristen has firsthand experience of the difficulties of making it on a day care wage. "I left because in order to pay the bills I was working a second job after 40 hours at day care," she said. She wanted to enjoy living on Ocracoke rather than constantly working to afford living on Ocracoke. Her job at Howard's Pub led to a workplace romance, and Kristen is newly wed to Clay Lucas.

The center relies on parent fees, fundraising, and donations to operate. OCC currently runs a deficit of about $1500 per month.

Ocracoke Child Care lost a fully-funded federal position when Pre-K moved to Ocracoke School. The 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, which funds after-school programs, cost the center revenues from part-time students.

"That was huge," said teacher Karen Ritchie.

"Pre-K is an amazing program. I don't think it's a bad thing to have that money available for the school," said Marissa. "Change is good. We just haven't found a way to adapt to that change."

Raising parent fees is not an option, say both Kristen and Marissa. When the board researched that option they discovered "purchase-of-care parents would have borne that burden disproportionately," said Marissa.

Purchase of care is a NC program that helps lower income families afford child care. It has recently been cut. The center receives purchase-of-care funds as a reimbursement, and "it is difficult to ask parents to pay when that money doesn't come in," said Marissa.

OCC's rating dropped from 5 to 4 stars when the state lowered staff-student ratios and the center couldn't afford to pay additional teachers.

The board started charging parents a snack fee. They are pursuing grants for green playground equipment to free that part of their budget for other uses. Parents and board members host fundraisers almost every month. These are tedious and tiresome, and don't raise enough, said Marissa.

"The center needs one big fundraiser for kids and adults," said Kristen.

The Volunteer Firemen's Ball and the Ocracoke Island 5K are large scale fundraisers the OCC board would like to emulate. They are looking into hosting Bingo, but wonder if that is a good fit for a child care center.

In 2013, the board explored the idea of hosting a small carnival with water slides and kiddie rides to be held on or around July 4th, and asked the Occupancy Tax Board for money to support the family-friendly event. The OTB was unable to fund that request.

Other non-profit island boards, notably OISFT, make annual donations to the center.

"I've been calling all over and taking all avenues everywhere to find funding," said Marissa. "It is a constant struggle. The goal is to secure a guaranteed non-fundraising substantial amount."

"People aren't donating like they used to. Businesses are not aware of how close it is," said Kristen. "If we can't provide [child care] some employers won't have employees."

The next two to three years will determine if OCC can afford to remain open. Should the center close it will be a "crisis situation," said Marissa.

Kristen remains positive and focused on her new position, and is hoping to be with OCC for a while.


Comments powered by Disqus