September 15th, 2020 12:37 PM
By Maria Maxham
Just four days into the school year, run remotely in District 91 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Superintendent Lou Cavallo announced that the district was terminating its agreement with the West Cook YMCA, which had been providing daytime supervision for D91 students at Grant White and district teachers' children at Field Stevenson. The YMCA was one of two programs, including child care through the Howard Mohr Community Center, that was being paid for by the district.
The announcement to end the YMCA agreement shocked some parents whose children had begun attending the program. And it shocked YMCA officials, who said they had spent weeks working on the program, soliciting input from D91 to ensure the district's and families' needs would be met and training staff to care for children during remote learning in unprecedented times.
The community center's program was already full, and the abrupt termination of the YMCA program put dozens of families in jeopardy without an option for daytime child care.
The district reached out to the Park District of Forest Park, which had been providing after-school hours care and had run a successful and socially distanced summer camp, and asked them to create a daytime program as well. The park district stepped up.
"The families need us," said Jackie Iovinelli, executive director of the park district, so she and Dannette Krajewski scrambled to put the program together.
Cavallo, in emails, an interview, and during a board of education meeting on Sept. 10, cited three reasons for the termination, including alleged problems with the YMCA's supervision of the children and safety violations related to COVID guidelines. But the biggest reason, according to Cavallo, was the amount the YMCA was charging, a figure he was not expecting until he received an invoice during the first week of remote learning.
Safety and supervision issues
The YMCA categorically objects to accusations of safety violations or improper supervision of children in the program.
YMCA President and CEO Phillip Jimenez said in an interview on Sept. 8 that in designing the program, the YMCA looked at guidelines from the Illinois State Board of Education, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the Department of Children and Family Services.
"We compared all three and took the most stringent to use for the program," Jimenez said. His staff, he added, have all signed a personal commitment to safety on the job and at home, including agreeing to a travel and vacation ban until the end of October. And employees went through extensive training to ensure they knew the rules and would have the children follow them.
"We're there to intervene," said Jimenez. "There is no way to unequivocally never have kids interact." But, he said, his staff was trained to remind kids to have "airplane arms," which means they'd keep a safe distance away from one another.
Masks were required and regular cleaning and sanitation protocols were in place. Because the kids were grouped in pods, they would stay with the same group at all times.
In a Sept. 3 email to a parent questioning the termination of the program, Cavallo said, "After numerous attempts to remedy the concerns, we came to the conclusion that the YMCA was not interested in changing their procedures." He added that "students were missing classes, and health and safety protocols were not being followed. I will not risk the health, safety and education of our kids."
The decision to terminate the program, however, was made only a few days into the start of care. And Jimenez said he only received one email from D91 regarding these issues, not "numerous attempts."
In that one email, sent on Aug. 25, the first day of remote learning, Cavallo wrote to Jimenez, "I am receiving complaints that the students in the Y Child Care are missing Zoom classes because the Y is asking students to follow a common schedule and not that of the teachers. I am not sure if this is true, but I wanted to relay this information to you. As we discussed before, all the students will be on different schedules, depending on their grade level and teacher. It will not be possible for them to all be on the same schedule."
No other emails related to class attendance or health or safety concerns were sent to the YMCA, Jimenez said.
Money was the biggest complaint voiced by Cavallo, and the main reason given for termination of the agreement.
"The biggest problem, however, was the cost," Cavallo said to the school board in an Aug. 28 email. "We made a mistake in trusting that their pricing would be fair. After planning and starting the program, we were given an invoice that did not match what I was told would be the price range."
Prior to that email, the Review had requested information about the financial agreement with the YMCA through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) but was told by Cavallo that the relationship with the YMCA had been terminated and there was no contract. In an interview, Cavallo told the Review that discussions about money had been "good faith" verbal agreements. There was nothing in writing.
However, the YMCA provided the Review with emails, including one dated July 23, in which details of cost were discussed. The discussed per-pod rates were the same rates billed to the district on the invoice Cavallo said proved to be too much.
In the July 23 email, Jimenez specifically stated, "The per month, per class room (class room of 15 students) cost is: $16,000." In an Aug. 13 email, in which Cavallo asked for that number again, Jimenez provided more information about the cost of the program and reiterated what he already said in the previous email on the topic, explicitly stating that the district would be charged per pod (or group) of kids, not on a per/child basis.
"Our per class room cost for the district is $16,000 per class room per month," reads the email from Jimenez to Cavallo. "It would be a max capacity of 15 youth per pod so that per day costs if the room was full is $53 [per child]."
Jimenez provided the per-child cost, but he made it clear in the July 23 email that looking at the cost at the price-per-child level wasn't representative of what the district would pay, since the district would be paying per pod of children, regardless of attendance. Jimenez also mentioned a start-up fee invoice, which included planning costs and training, an invoice sent to the district on July 31.
In a July 26 email between Jimenez and Cavallo, Jimenez explicitly stated that the district could keep costs as low as possible by providing the YMCA with classrooms that are a minimum of 850 to 900 square feet in size. This would ensure the YMCA could meet the 17 persons limit (15 students and two adults) and keep the number of pods as low as possible, since the Y had said they would be charging the district on a per-pod basis.
In the Aug. 28 email to board members, however, Cavallo expressed surprise and shock at the very arrangements discussed in previous emails mentioned above.
"None of the rooms are at capacity because [the YMCA] refused to put the full 15 in the room at 6 feet apart because they said their guidelines required them to use a number of people per square foot limit that included the staff," wrote Cavallo to the board. "The price was fixed, regardless of how many kids were in the room."
Both of those issues had already been communicated to Cavallo in the emails from Jimenez.
Cavallo told the board in a Sept. 4 email that, "After some heated negotiations, the YMCA came down on price for their start up cost but not their per classroom costs," insinuating that it was the latter that was most problematic. That per-pod rate, however, had not changed since it was provided by the YMCA in the July email.
Jimenez also said he'd sought grant funding to underwrite about $80,000 of the total program for D91, which would bring the per-child fee even lower, potentially from $53/child per day to $30 or $35/child per day.
"The September price was never meant to go beyond September," said Jimenez. "And Cavallo knows that." He said the plan was to "sharpen the pencils" after September, which was the test period, to figure out how to adjust cost after the initial first month of a program unlike anything the Y or the district had seen before.
Jimenez said he's disappointed with the situation. He spoke about previous programs he's run in collaboration with D91, such as Power Scholars Academy (PSA). He remembers sitting down with Cavallo and D90 (River Forest) Superintendent Ed Condon to brainstorm and develop that program.
"That spirit of collaboration from PSA is how we went into this," said Jimenez, who said talks had begun about future programs between the district and the Y. "The unfortunate course of action he's taken has made future plans difficult at this time."
Intergovernmental agreements between D91 and the community center and park district were on the agenda for the Sept. 10 school board meeting, but since they hadn't been finalized, the board will vote on them at a future meeting.
While the YMCA readily provided emails showing their discussions with D91, the school district was reluctant to provide information.
Cavallo did participate in an interview, but later told board members in an email, "I spoke to the [Forest Park Review reporter], as was advised by our attorney, to provide the narrative."
He went on to say he had "no doubt" the newspaper, which had FOIA-ed the district, would also FOIA the YMCA; however, the YMCA provided emails voluntarily.
"The YMCA will likely retaliate and put their spin on this," said Cavallo. "We can't do much about that other than tell the truth."
In an official FOIA request to D91, the Review asked for "copies of all records that relate to District 91's interaction and/or agreement with the West Cook YMCA to provide care for students during the 2020/2021 school year, including but not limited to the dollar amount per student the district agreed to pay."
Cavallo responded with the following: "We did not agree to the cost that the West Cook YMCA wanted to charge and informed them that we would not be using their services. We informed parents today that we found alternative child supervision during remote learning with the Park District of Forest Park."
He did not provide emails related to discussions, even though arguably the FOIA request was broad enough that those should have been provided.
When a resident requested similar information, Cavallo ignored several FOIA requests. Finally, when legal action was threatened by the resident, Cavallo explained his failure to respond to the legal requirement to provide information as due to "a very busy time at the beginning of the school year."
He called the request "frivolous and burdensome" and said, "You did not send your original FOIA request to the district FOIA officer for the district as is noted on our website." (At the time of the request, no FOIA information was available on the district's website.)
In an interview, the Review asked Cavallo who the FOIA officer for the district is.
"I am," responded Cavallo.
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