Town is forced to cancel popular toddler program

Wilton Parks & Recreation was forced to cancel its popular Sharon’s on School Road toddler program this week due to a licensing issue, but Sharon Cowley, who runs the program, said she is working on a resolution.

A letter was sent to approximately 50 families on Monday, Aug. 26, informing them the program will not be offered this fall as scheduled. The letter was sent by Parks & Recreation Director Steve Pierce who offered the following reasons for the cancellation:

“The State Department of Public Health has informed the Town that the toddler program as currently run can only be provided by a licensed child care center. The Town is not licensed to run a child care facility, and, therefore, cannot continue to offer the current toddler program. In addition, facility improvements and maintenance projects at Comstock Community Center will be substantial and may interfere with the safe operation of the toddler program.”

In addition to the families who are out of luck, nine workers have lost their positions.

The Bulletin was directed to Wilton Human Resources Director Sarah Taffel for more information. She said the town was informed by the state of its situation on Monday, Aug. 19.

The state health department turned its attention to the program following a complaint, which Ms. Taffel declined to elaborate on. William Gerrish, a spokesman for the state health department, said an investigation into the program is ongoing and as such he was unable to offer any details.

As a result of the complaint, state officials visited Wilton to conduct a site inspection on Aug. 19, and reached its decision the same day.

Ms. Taffel stressed the town did not wait until the last minute to inform families the program, scheduled to begin Sept. 3, was canceled.

“We only had from Tuesday to Friday to decide where to go with the situation,” she said. “With families registered for the fall, we tried to find something we could do alternatively quickly enough.” Unfortunately, she continued, there was nothing that could be done right away.

“No one wanted to write that letter ... no one wanted to put these folks in a jam,” she said.

Popular program

Among those caught by surprise was Ms. Cowley, who said, “I’m heartbroken.”

According to the Parks & Recreation website, Sharon’s on School Road offered “affordable, creative, exciting early childhood programming.” The classes “foster imagination, exploration, ingenuity, and compassion to help children become active problem solvers and creative members of our community.”

The 2012-2013 program offered a drop-off program for two-year-olds, and full and part-time classes for three- to five-year-olds as well as an extended day Lunch Bunch for preschoolers and kindergartners.

The hugely popular program evolved over many years from a more simple offering to what it had become.

Ms. Cowley said she has been at Parks & Recreation nine years, and began by offering an art class, a mommy and me program, and a toddler program.

The program’s popularity and evolution seems to be how the town got into the situation of running what the state determined was an unlicensed child day care operation. It appears the state considered the back-to-back nature of the programming — where parents may sign their children up for one block of programming after another — to constitute a day care center.

Both the town and Ms. Cowley are looking into alternatives.

In his letter to families Mr. Pierce said: “Parks & Recreation Department personnel are working with representatives of the State Department of Public Health to determine what toddler program offerings the Town can provide that would meet State requirements for a non-licensed facility. Such offerings must also take into consideration the ongoing facility improvement and maintenance projects. Parents will be notified if such programs offerings will be made available for the fall session.”

Whatever the town may offer, Ms. Taffel said it would be a scaled-back program and “would not serve people who need a half-day kind of program.”

Possible license

Ms. Cowley is hoping for something more. She is investigating getting a license in her name and had plans to speak with state officials Wednesday, Aug. 28.

“I’m trying very hard to work something out with the town,” she said. If she can get a license, she would like to stay at Parks & Recreation.

“They have to finish the roof and licensing takes a while, but the state says they are willing to expedite it,” she said. Ms. Cowley said if everything went well she would hope to offer a new program as early as the end of September.

She is also looking at other spaces as well, including spaces in nearby towns such as Ridgefield.