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Long-term future of Rohnert Park preschool in question as it searches for new home

The preschool, which operates out of aging portables, must find a new location after its lease expires in 2026.|

Child care in Sonoma County

Many local child care facilities closed in the pandemic amid teacher shortages and declining enrollment and haven’t reopened.

There are 23 child care centers and 37 licensed family child care facilities in Rohnert Park. Of the child care centers, 15 serve preschool students, 13 serve school-aged students and just three are state or federally funded, including Gold Ridge Preschool, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs.

Across Sonoma County, there are 531 child care facilities, down 15% from before the pandemic. The county has lost 44% of available child care slots since March 2020, 4Cs data shows.

A countywide tax measure that would have raised money for child care failed to qualify for the November ballot after thousands of voter signatures were flagged by county election officials as potentially fraudulent.

As a working single mom, Adriana Jimenez was scrambling a few years back to find an affordable, reliable child care option for her young son that would allow her to hold down her full-time job.

She’d had little luck finding a preschool near her Rohnert Park home that wouldn’t eat into her monthly budget.

“I found one preschool but it was extremely, crazy expensive. I just couldn’t afford it,” she said, adding she considered saving up money or taking on debt to pay for it.

A caregiver who was providing at-home instruction to her son suggested she try Gold Ridge Preschool.

The school, operated by the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs, offered all-day care, was near her home and had subsidized tuition for lower earners. Jimenez applied and was accepted.

The program proved to be a lifeline for her.

Jimenez, who works in sales at State Farm, said the program allowed her to continue working without having to worry about who would care for her son and without taking a financial hit.

“It was so helpful to be able to work, be able to make my own money, and have child care,” Jimenez, now 34, said.

Gold Ridge Preschool has provided early care and education for working families in Rohnert Park and Cotati for six years, but the school’s long-term future is in question unless it can find a new home.

The school, on Golf Course Drive east of Snyder Lane, is housed in an aging group of four connected portables that is beyond its life span. Poor ventilation beneath the co-joined building has caused the foundation to shift and the classroom floors to buckle and crack.

Rotting sub-flooring in a previously used classroom at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Rotting sub-flooring in a previously used classroom at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

4Cs has been working with Rohnert Park, which owns the facility, to find an alternative site. The city has agreed to make $200,000 in emergency repairs in the meantime to allow the preschool to remain in the building through the end of its lease in 2026.

Melanie Dodson, executive director of 4Cs, worries if they can’t find a new location the program could close, exacerbating the child care crisis in Sonoma County, which has lost thousands of child care slots during the pandemic.

A countywide tax measure that would’ve raised money for child care failed to qualify for the November ballot after thousands of signatures were flagged as suspicious by county election officials.

“We want all kids and families to have access to high-quality education but it has been very difficult in the pandemic,” she said. “I really worry about our parents who use our services if we can’t find a new location.”

Aging school site is failing

Gold Ridge serves 32 children ages 3 and 4 in its full-day, full-year preschool and half-day program. About 80 children were enrolled in the school prior to the pandemic, and Dodson hopes to increase capacity to about 70 students.

Close to 85% of families served live in Rohnert Park or Cotati, and the campus is one of the more diverse 4Cs operates, she said.

Families must be working or going to school to qualify for the program and earn below about $112,000 for a family of four to receive subsidized tuition. Full tuition is about $1,200 per month for full-day care.

Many Gold Ridge families receive free tuition, and the state has waived tuition for all students in 4Cs programs during the pandemic.

In 2016, the preschool moved into the former Gold Ridge Elementary School that closed in 2008 and signed a 10-year lease with Rohnert Park. Several of the buildings at the former school campus, which opened in 1987, have been demolished since the school closed except for the portable and a building that houses a city recreation center.

4Cs received a grant to make cosmetic repairs to the interior of the portable, repaint the walls, install new flooring and update the kitchen when they moved in.

But the portable soon showed signs of bigger issues.

Crews had to repair the classroom floors two years ago after a building assessment found signs of failure, according to the city.

Dayani Miranda, 4, and Camila Macias, 4, play in their classroom next to an area of uneven flooring marked with red tape at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Dayani Miranda, 4, and Camila Macias, 4, play in their classroom next to an area of uneven flooring marked with red tape at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

The condition of the building has continued to deteriorate. Parts of the floor have become soft, and staff has had to patch up holes with wooden boards, Dodson said.

The City Council last August agreed to help 4Cs, a nonprofit that operates 12 preschools in Sonoma County and helps connect families with early childhood services. The city set aside $200,000 toward helping the school relocate.

After an extensive search of city-owned sites and vacant commercial spaces, Rohnert Park and 4Cs identified a building at Cotati City Hall as a potential site. Though it has sufficient space for the preschool and provides a central location for families, retrofitting the building to bring it up to code and state licensing requirements for preschools is estimated to cost up to $900,000, beyond the city and school’s budget.

Caution tape marks off an area with rotted sub-flooring in a previously used classroom at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Caution tape marks off an area with rotted sub-flooring in a previously used classroom at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Ultimately, the city decided fixing the portable was the most feasible option and the City Council in June approved redirecting the $200,000 to repairs.

Engineers completed an assessment of the portable in early July, and construction has started in one of the classrooms. Repairs are expected to be completed by September.

The city hopes repairs help the school remain in the building through the end of the lease in 2026 and any unused funds will go toward helping Gold Ridge move.

‘Our goal is to find a new location’

Jimenez’s two oldest sons have now graduated from Gold Ridge and her 4-year-old daughter is currently enrolled in the program. The school has become like a second home for her children, and the teachers have created a welcoming and safe environment for students, she said.

Jimenez said without the program she likely would’ve had to find more expensive care options which would’ve cut into her budget to pay for rent, food and other goods. Another alternative would’ve been to work nights and stay home with her son during the day, missing out on dinner and nighttime routines.

“I don’t know where I would be without it,” she said. “It would be a big loss for the community if it went away.”

Preschool helps prepare young children for school by providing them with academic building blocks, social emotional learning and socialization and it provides secondary benefits for families who can take on more work hours or go back to school, Dodson said.

If Gold Ridge closed, it would contribute to learning loss, force parents to find other alternatives and further deplete child care choices in the region, she said.

Ms. Nati Amador plays with students including Camila Macias, 4, left, and Samantha Garcia, 4, right, at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)
Ms. Nati Amador plays with students including Camila Macias, 4, left, and Samantha Garcia, 4, right, at the 4Cs Gold Ridge Preschool in Rohnert Park, Calif. on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

Dodson said while 4Cs is reimbursed by the California Department of Education for day-to-day operations and teacher salaries, it doesn’t receive funding for facilities maintenance.

The organization has relied on partnerships with cities like Rohnert Park and nonprofits to bridge financing gaps, she said.

State education officials have indicated there could be grants available in the next two years for facilities improvements that the organization plans to apply for. They’ll continue to look for another location if they can’t find funding to move into the Cotati space, she said.

“Our goal is to find a new location and provide continuity and stability for our families,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Child care in Sonoma County

Many local child care facilities closed in the pandemic amid teacher shortages and declining enrollment and haven’t reopened.

There are 23 child care centers and 37 licensed family child care facilities in Rohnert Park. Of the child care centers, 15 serve preschool students, 13 serve school-aged students and just three are state or federally funded, including Gold Ridge Preschool, according to the Community Child Care Council of Sonoma County, or 4Cs.

Across Sonoma County, there are 531 child care facilities, down 15% from before the pandemic. The county has lost 44% of available child care slots since March 2020, 4Cs data shows.

A countywide tax measure that would have raised money for child care failed to qualify for the November ballot after thousands of voter signatures were flagged by county election officials as potentially fraudulent.

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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