Madison White, 4, enjoys the playground outside the preschool class at the Morrison Center in Wells in this family photo, but the class will close Jan. 15, leaving her family and the families of three other children looking for other schools. The director of the Morrison Center said the class is closing because of staffing shortages. Courtesy Photo/Danielle White

ARUNDEL – The mother of a 4-year-old with learning disabilities said she was told by phone on Dec 18 that the small preschool class her daughter attends will close in mid-January. Danielle White said she is concerned about the short notice, lack of communication, and the dearth of alternatives.

White, whose daughter, Madison, has been attending the Morrison Center in Wells, said she worries that her daughter will lose the progress she’s made while attending the preschool class.

White said her daughter has autism and has been nonverbal, has sensory processing disorder and other issues.

“She needs to be socialized and she needs school. She is just starting to talk,” her mother said.

She said other schools she has contacted have long waiting lists, and had hoped the Morrison Center would rethink its position and keep the small class going until the end of the school year, to give families more time to find alternatives, but that doesn’t appear to be happening.

“It’s supposed to be about the best interest of the children and I will tell you this is not in the best interest of the children, to leave them with no option and no school,” said White. She said her conversations with the state’s Child Development Services district office in Arundel have been discouraging. She said she was told the waiting list for another school is lengthy.

White said she was initially informed by telephone from the Scarborough office of the Morrison Center that the closure of the preschool class in Wells was a business decision, and later that the closure was due to staffing issues.

Morrison Center executive director Mark Ryder said small nonprofit agencies have been hit hard by staffing shortages.

“Morrison Center currently operates a very small preschool program in Wells serving four children,” said Ryder in an email to the Kennebunk Post. “Regretfully, given the pandemic and Maine’s current work-force conditions, we are unable to secure the staff necessary to operate this program safely or effectively. As you know, staffing has been a serious challenge for Maine businesses in recent months, and small nonprofits have been hit particularly hard. Morrison Center, like most, will continue to do the best we can under the circumstances.”

White said she was contacted by the Morrison Center several days after she was told of the closure, inquiring if she was interested in placing her daughter on the waiting list of the Morrison Center’s preschool in Scarborough. White said she declined because she believes it too may be slated for closure, and doesn’t want her daughter let down twice.

“I’m trying to get her into another school,” said White.

Frustrated with the situation, White said she has contacted the office of Sen. Susan Collins,  state senators Susan Deschambault and Joe Rafferty and Disability Rights Maine.

Benjamin Jones, staff attorney with Disability Rights Maine said the agency filed a complaint last week with the Maine Department of Education about waiting lists for programs in the York regional office of Child Development Services. He said a decision is expected within 60 days.

“Disability Rights Maine recently become aware that the Child Development Services York office may not be meeting its legal obligation to provide students with disabilities with access to a free and appropriate public education,” said Jones in an email.

Jones said he couldn’t speak to any individual case, but has heard from more than one family with similar concerns, “that programs in the area are full, leaving students with disabilities without access to early important intervention services.”

Jones pointed to a February 2019 report to the Legislature by Child Development Services, which notes, in part, that at the end of the 2017-18 school year, a significant number of identified preschool age children had not received at least some of the services outlined on their Individualized Education Program. The report noted unmet needs were present across the system, but were most significant in southern Maine.

The report said the root cause is a combination of “poor CDS compensation which inhibits its ability to recruit and retain qualified personnel; limited capacity of contracted providers; historically low unemployment rates; a statewide general shortage of qualified special education personnel for students 0 to 20; and the exceptionally high cost of living in southern Maine.”

Kelli Deveaux, communications director for the Maine Department of Education, said Child Development Services is working on finding alternatives for the children impacted by the closure.

“CDS site directors and state-level leadership met as soon as they learned of the impending closing of Morrison Center (class) due to staffing issues,” said Deveaux in an email. “The emergency meeting was held to develop and secure alternative education placements for the students and their families. CDS site directors will begin outreach to the affected families to provide information and review next steps to ensure services without disruption.”

White said she and her husband moved to Arundel three years ago to see that Madison receives the services and the schooling she needs.

“It’s learning and services,” said White. “She’s so smart.”

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