Popular preschool to close its doors

Children play with blocks at St. Christopher Preschool in Marquette Township. The preschool/daycare will close at the end of the school year after over 25 years. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — The decision to close a long-standing preschool and day care in Marquette Township is fraught with emotion for all involved.

St. Christopher’s Preschool, which is on the campus of St. Christopher Catholic Parish along Badger Street, will be closing its doors for good at the end of the school year.

The preschool has been serving Marquette-area families for more than 25 years. The facility has six teachers who offer preschool or child care services for roughly 75 children between the ages of 3 and 5 during the school year, as well as a summer program that traditionally operates from the beginning of June to the end of August for about 90 children between 3 and 10 years old, Preschool Director Kim Specker said.

The parish owns the preschool building, and officials there have opted to close the school and sell the property primarily because the 7,844-square-foot structure, built in 1965, will need repairs in the long term, which the parish is not financially able to make, said parish Father Greg Heikkala.

“Each building requires regular expenses, and in the near future the school building will require capital improvements that would be difficult for a small parish,” Heikkala said. “We did explore different options for the preschool program; the decision is very much financial.”

The building, which is situated on 2.98 acres in a district zoned Urban Residential, has been listed as a commercial property for $649,000. Marquette Township Planning and Zoning Administrator Jason McCarthy said there are a number of potential “commercial uses for the property that could be viable.”

“However, many of those would require a special use permit to be approved,” McCarthy said. “In that case, a public hearing would be required and neighbors within 300 (feet) of the property would be notified of the proposed reuse, in … case that they wanted to provide comment.”

The School

Parents and school staff said they were shocked and saddened when they learned in March that the parish had decided to close the building, citing efforts that had been made in the recent past to make the preschool financially solvent.

Tom Schaedig, one of two financial representatives of the board, said the school’s finances are accounted for separately from the parish.

“The school pays all operating and maintenance expenses,” Schaedig said. “The school is operating in the black … The facility operates well within its licensing requirements.”

The black ink on the school’s ledgers, Schaedig said, are due largely to the efforts of parents and school employees.

He said in the fall of 2017, the parish informed school officials that “the school was operating in the red and if it wasn’t corrected very quickly, the school would be closed.”

Schaedig, who has a background in finance, said he combed the school’s books, along with another parent board member and the parish accountant.

Parents volunteered their time and talents to market the school, Schaedig said, and they launched a successful student recruitment marketing program and a donation drive. Those actions, he said, put the school “back in the black” by the spring of 2018.

Specker, in a prepared statement, expressed her frustration with the decision to close the program.

“It is so unfortunate that the current leaders of the parish and the Diocese (of Marquette) may not have a full understanding of the history of how this program has filled a niche for families in our community for over 30 years,” Specker said. “And if given the opportunity, our very supportive parent group, both past and present, may have been able to raise the necessary funds and resources to cover building costs and improvements over time.”

Moving the school to a new location is not feasible due to a variety of state licensing requirements, she said.

Many of the families are seeking replacement care, with a focus on the summer months.

“My heart just goes out to these families, because they are just running into road blocks,” Specker said.

The Parents

Hannah Moore, who has two children in the St. Christopher’s program and a third who would have started in the fall, said she is having difficulty finding affordable day care that meets her schedule.

“As of now I (will be) driving a little over an hour to drop the kids off with their great grandma. I’ll miss the flexibility of the program,” Moore said. “As a nurse, I start my day at 7 a.m. and sometimes can’t predict when I might get done. The structure for the kids is great, but they are more laid back with the families (in terms of scheduling). St. Christopher’s works with the family, not against you.”

Heikkala said the preschool has had a strong reputation over the years, and acknowledged how hard the closing might be for families.

“We know it has been difficult for the parents who may be scrambling to find day care and we have tried to help,” he said.

Another parent, Dana Gould, said she feels fortunate to at least have found a place for her 5-year-old daughter Anna this summer. But as an alumna of the preschool herself, she is still saddened by the closure.

“I was hoping not to have to transition to somewhere new over the summer,” Gould said. “In essence, the one I found, it’s comparable. On paper it looks very much the same, but emotionally — teacher-student relationships — will that be the same? I just want to reiterate the loss the community is going to feel because of this, because (of) the care and compassion this school provides each and every child. My daughter loves it here, it’s going to be hard to tell her we are not coming for the summer.”

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is lbowers@miningjournal.net.