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Ledyard - After more than 45 years serving the district's preschoolers, the Ledyard Center Nursery School will shutter at the end of this academic year.
Ledyard Congregational Church, which houses the program, officially made the announcement toward the end of last year, several months after longtime Director Beth Ayer notified the church that she would be retiring the following summer. Now, as the program's end date approaches, its six other staff members have failed to find a new place to operate and will face unemployment in June.
Bill Saums, a town councilor and former member of the church's board of trustees, said the explanation is a simple one: The need isn't there.
At its peak, the program enrolled more than 100 children. This year, only 40 participated.
"It's been a steady decline," he said.
But other factors also played a role, he said, including the church's 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. It's becoming increasingly difficult for nonprofit churches to operate any kind of business as the rules governing nonprofit status become more stringent, Saums said, and the Internal Revenue Service scrutinizes such operations.
"We don't want our nonprofit status challenged," he said. "We're a church first."
Sharon Wadecki, the church's treasurer, said the nursery school and the church keep separate books, making the program appear by tax standards to be a business.
"When the director decided to retire, I think they just decided, with the tax issues hanging out there, let's just end it," she said.
Wadecki added that the closure follows the trend of more households with two parents who work full-time. The nursery school program, which does not run all day, cannot meet the need for preschools or day care programs that operate on a school's full-day schedule.
Saums called the decision a painful one that took several years to make. But he said growing insurance and utility bills - particularly in a facility sized for more than twice the current enrollment - sealed the program's fate.
"With the trend going the way it is, it would be foolish to continue to operate like that," he said.
Though Saums said it's "anybody's guess" as the whether the program is actually profiting or costing the church, Ayer, who has been working for the nursery school since 1991 and directed it for the past 16 years, insisted the program has remained revenue-neutral.
And though Saums said part of the rationale is that there are more options available now for day care and preschool programs, Superintendent of Schools Cathy Patterson said as far as the district is concerned, that's not the case.
The two-classroom all-day preschool program at the Gallup Hill School - which began five years ago - accommodates 36 children, whose admission is determined by a lottery conducted by the LEARN regional educational service center. Children are turned away every year, Patterson said.
Ayer added that with the addition of all-day kindergarten this academic year, there is no other preschool program in town that accommodates 5-year-olds.
"It's very unfortunate," she said.