AUSTIN (KXAN) — “It’s coming along,” laughed Nicole Smith as she stands in the middle of her nursery.
There are stacks of baby wipes, stuffed animals lined along the windowsill and lots of diapers.
“Excitingly terrified,” she said.
She and her husband are first-time parents and wanted to be prepared for Baby Addison’s arrival in June. They started looking for child care around December 2021.
They signed up with Primrose School of Austin at Mueller.
“We have friends that bring their kids there and really enjoy it. And so we went there, did a tour, really liked the facility,” Smith said.
They even agreed to a $100 a month waitlist fee until their daughter could join, which would then be put toward her tuition.
“It was everything but a promise that, you know, we would have no issues getting in September,” Smith said.
But when she saw a Facebook post from another parent whose enrollment date got pushed back by six months, Smith grew concerned. She called to verify her own date and was then told that her daughter likely wouldn’t get into the school until at least spring of 2023.
That would’ve meant about $1,500 in non-refundable fees, with no place to put her newborn in the meantime, so Smith could work.
“It was almost like a bait and switch that, you know, of course, they told us that and now they’re telling us that it could be even longer than six months, there was no definitive timeline that was given,” Smith said.
She said she was also told that they were in the middle of a waitlist of dozens of families.
“And if they keep pushing it. now you’re stringing us along. So for 40 families, you’re getting… $4,000 a month with no services rendered. And you’re just going to keep tacking that on as long as there’s ‘no space,'” she said.
Once KXAN started digging into the concern, the school changed its policy, no longer charging a monthly fee and capping the waitlist at 50 families.
“After talking with all of our prospective parents, we have capped the waitlist at 50 families and are no longer charging a monthly fee. We also continue to be in frequent contact with prospective families as we try our best to provide estimated timelines for when a space will become available.”Christy Black
Primrose Schools Franchise Owner
Black, who also owns the Primrose schools of Bee Cave, Lakeway, and West Lake Hills, according to her email signature, said they also offered parents on the waitlist a refund, and immediate placement at the West Lake Hills location “while space is available.”
“In my 15-year experience, we have not had a waitlist with such a high volume of interest from parents, especially as we have had over the last six months. It’s important for us to be transparent about the wait times while working with parents to do our best to accommodate their needs as quickly as we can,” Black wrote in a statement to KXAN News.
Smith said the school was not transparent until she called and pressed for information, and KXAN stepped in, and she just wants other families to be aware in their search for the right facility.
“I just hope this can … help people,” she said. “I think it’s good for other families to understand if there is a guaranteed timeline to understand how their waitlist works.”
Melanie Rubin is the board chair for the Texas Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. She said monthly waitlist fees are not common.
“But it’s not unheard of because we really are facing a crisis in child care that we have not seen before,” she said.
Rubin said the coronavirus pandemic made a staffing problem worse.
“Programs don’t want to fill with kids that are not going to come,” she said. “Most of their intentions are really good and they really want to help at the same time they are struggling to maintain a business and so they have to be realistic as well as what that looks like.”
She said infant care is the most expensive and in the shortest supply. But it is best practice for providers to be transparent with their families.
“You’re supporting the workforce. We’re the workforce behind the workforce,” Rubin said. “It is so important to be transparent to be reliable so that parents can make plans of what’s realistic for them.”
It’s back to square one for the Smiths.
“Now we have to kind of sort of start our search over. And I feel like we’re at a disadvantage because now we have less time before she comes. And waitlists are, are long everywhere,” Smith said.
How the City of Austin is trying to help
Back in 2018, Austin city council members voted on a resolution to bring more high quality child care to the area.
KXAN checked in with Austin Public Health on its progress.
They say they’ve added a child care center at Bergstrom Tech Center and are also working on a public health and child care center in the Dove Springs neighborhood, which is in the permitting phase right now.
The agency says they’ve also used federal funds to help facilities:
- $11 million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act
- $1 million to support child care provider relief grants through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act
- $5,048,000 to support child care provider relief grants through the City of Austin’s Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors (SAVES) Fund
- $2.6 million to support child care for essential workers through the federal Community Development Block Grant- Covid Relief
In August, the city council approved another resolution.
“One of the measures I sponsored recently also asks our staff when you’re — when they’re bringing forward proposals for council to consider that are new or major redevelopments of city facilities that there should be a child care, should be some onsite child care element as part of that new city facility,” said Kathie Tovo.
There are exceptions, like if there are “other high-quality child care facilities” nearby to new projects.