Government & Politics

State revokes day care license of Operation REACH's center

The Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services has revoked the license for the daycare owned by struggling nonprofit Operation REACH, Inc., according to state officials.

That revocation, effective at the end of last week, means The Knowledge Garden, at 1700 Josephine St., must end its operations immediately. Former clients of the daycare said officials never told them that the state wanted to revoke the license. Three parents said that tuition went up right before many parents found out.

The center originally planned to fight state’s license revocation, which state officials said was because of the center’s chronic failure to provide officials with criminal background checks on its employees. Its appeal hearing was set for Monday morning. Late Friday afternoon, Knowledge Garden officials called to drop their challenge,  said Christine Dabney, a clerk with the division of administrative law.

As a result, the state revoked the license, said René Sonnier, spokeswoman for the child services department.

Operation REACH Chief Executive Officer Kyshun Webster did not respond to questions asking whether he’d informed parents that the state wanted to pull the daycare’s license. He did say that parents said they were willing to pay higher costs.

The Knowledge Garden was one of Operation REACH’s main sources of income, and the nonprofit has struggled to stay afloat in the past year. One of its major funders, the Corporation for National and Community Service – the federal agency that runs AmeriCorps – pulled funding in September 2011 after officials found “irregularities” in Operation REACH’s financial ledgers. In March, former employees began to raise concerns about Webster’s spending. They pointed to thousands of dollars spent at vacation destinations, restaurants and apparel stores.

Two weeks ago, federal auditors said the nonprofit couldn’t account for nearly $900,000 in grant funds.

Webster defended his expenses, stressing that he was not the only employee with access to the organization’s checking accounts, and he threw responsibility for proper fiscal management of the AmeriCorps program on his chief compliance officer, Nicole Payne-Jack. Payne-Jack, one of the former employees with concerns, said that Webster had ultimate control over the organization’s finances.

Parents watching the backlash play out in the news media became disillusioned with the daycare they’d once respected, said Melissa Harris, whose two children had attended the daycare for the past two years.

“I know people were pulling their kids out, and had been pulling their kids out, ever since the news first broke about Operation REACH,” she said.

It’s a shame, she said, because she loved the teachers there.

“The teachers, the facility was really nice, but the management was just terrible,” she said.

Harris withdrew her children in early August, shortly after word got out that the daycare was in trouble with the state. Harris, and another parent, Sue Mobley, both said Webster never announced to parents that the state intended to revoke the daycare’s license. The state issued its notice to revoke on June 27.

As recently as a year ago, the center served more than 60 children, Mobley said.

“The way that we found out that there was an administrative hearing, was because a parent’s friend who was considering sending her child to the school, looked up licensing, and there was a star next to it,” Mobley said.

When asked whether he’d notified parents of the state’s intent, Webster avoided the question in an emailed statement:

“The revocation notice was untimely, but we believed we could have resolved the matter, according to our legal counsel,” he wrote.

Mobley, who also withdrew her children in August, said other parents began to withdraw after Webster announced tuition increases in late May.

“Literally, they lost every child in the center in a two-week period,” Mobley said. Mobley said tuition was set to go up from $600 a month to $750, and that a tuition finance agreement that asked parents take out loans for the annual cost, plus interest,  would have raised it even higher.

Webster said parents said that they were willing to pay more, based on their overall satisfaction with the daycare. Mobley agreed that she and a few other parents did say this in April, but the majority of parents who were willing had all pulled their kids out by the time tuition increases were announced.

Webster also addressed the costs of running the daycare in his statement:

“Operation REACH, the parent organization, subsidized the true cost of running a high quality childcare facility since its opening in 2009,” he wrote. “But ultimately, the business model was not sustainable without subsidy from the parent organization. Therefore, the board made a decision to close with dignity and provide proper notice to all. NO FURTHER COMMENT.”


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About Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her reporting on charter school transparency and governance. In 2012, she was part of a team that received a National Edward R. Murrow Award for their work following a New Orleans family's recovery after Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Edna Karr Secondary School in Algiers, and she obtained her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at (504) 575-8191.

  • Zbercy

    I hope all of the former teachers there find great jobs because they were truly amazing.

  • glm

    What’s not mentioned is that the school owes some of those fabulous teachers their paychecks. It’s such a disgrace all around. It was a great facility and really great teachers…so sad that the powers that be ruined it!

    I can also say that the parents were willing to pay more months ago…for better quality food and services…not to subsidize their shortcomings. And I think we thought $50 a month was reasonable not another $150. What a joke!

  • Sue

    What’s also not mentioned is that the parents advisory committee, who were the ones to offer that $50 increase, we a. disbanded,and b. forbidden to communicate with one another by our private emails under threat of having our children expelled. Nor is it mentioned that the reason we didn’t know about the potential revocation is because Dr. Webster removed the state mandated sticker from the center’s front door.

    Also, to cross reference with earlier articles, Nicole Payne-Jack, who Dr. Webster cast suspicion on regarding access to Operation Reach’s finances, is also the staff member who led the internal probe into allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr Webster’s brother, who worked for the organization as a program officer. When she came back supporting his firing, Webster reinstated him.That was in June of 2011, Jack herself was fired in August. lens 3.22.12,

  • The inspector general need to look inot Malcolm Collins, Dr. Webster’s father-in-law misuse of money at Mercy Seat Baptist Church and Pressing Onward Baptist Church.

  • Cindy V

    I had registered my son to begin at Knowledge Garden on August 7 and paid a registration fee. He was to begin on October 8. Two days ago I stopped by to drop off his vaccination records and to my surprise the janitor told me the facility had closed a few weeks ago. No one contacted me to notify me of the closing or refund my registration fee. Searching the web I find that Mr. Webster was aware of the license revocation and continued to collect registration fees. He is a thief and needs to be exposed for what he truly is!

  • uptownmom

    I sent my daughter to this center for two years and couldn’t have imagined sending her to any of the numerous other centers that I looked into.

    The teachers were outstanding and truly cared about each and every child. My child’s language skills, social skills, and physical development are amazing and I know the Knowledge Garden had a lot to do with that. The teachers nurtured my daughter 10 hours a day, 5 days a week. They sang with her, read to her, held her, and encouraged her with great patience.

    It is such a shame that the management was what it was. It had everything else going for it; great staff, diversity, great location, wonderful facilities, and the best families. From the first few months my daughter was enrolled there, I knew the management was not operating correctly. The owner’s wife even flat out lied to me about some financial matters. I do hope Dr. Webber is held responsible for his misuse of funds…