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The Learning Center could close

May 06, 2010|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN -- Washington County Health System's senior management has recommended closing a child care and education center serving about 130 children.

The Learning Center, near Hagerstown City Park, could shut down Aug. 20, according to a letter sent Monday to families that use the center.

About 35 center employees would lose their jobs, said Mike Zampelli, the health system's vice president for Antietam Health Services.

Zampelli said the closure would cut costs as the health system prepares its budget for fiscal year 2011, which starts July 1.

Senior management recommended the cut to the health system's board of directors, which is scheduled to meet next week.

Although it's not settled, Monday's letter by Charles R. Wainwright, the center's director, suggests that closure is likely, and it gives a specific day and time.

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"We are all aware of the difficult economic conditions that are present both nationally and locally," the letter says. "They have had a major impact on the Health System, and there continues to be a need for considerable reduction in operational costs.

"I regret to inform you that, due to these circumstances, and the financial requirements of sustaining the child care program, Management of the Health System has recommended closing The Learning Center as part of the business plan for its fiscal year that starts July 1, 2010. Therefore, upon Board approval of the Business Plan, the necessary steps will be taken to permanently close the Learning Center at 6:00pm Friday August 20, 2010."

Zampelli said the health system spends about $850,000 to subsidize the center as an employee benefit.

The center -- formerly known as Surrey Child Care Center -- opened about 25 years ago as a benefit for health system employees, but it's open to the community, too.

Zampelli said it serves about 130 children -- split about evenly between health system families and other families.

The center charges tuition. The health system pays 75 percent of the cost for its employees, Zampelli said.

Kay Papeskov of Hagerstown said she was "devastated" to hear the center is likely to close.

"It was a total shock to absolutely everyone in the area," she said.

She has two daughters who attend -- D'Elana, 5, and Ornella, 3.

Papeskov said the nationally accredited center is unique in this area, so she and other parents don't know what to do -- except lobby to keep it open.

She said she'd pay extra to keep the center going.

But Zampelli said the health system has found that enrollment drops when tuition rises, so that's probably not a solution.

He said it's difficult to recommend closing a successful program. At the same time, he said, it's hard to spend money for something used by a small fraction of more than 2,500 health system employees.

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