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Chaffee County put out a press release late Thursday, that might perhaps be the result of this week’s Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) executive session regarding the abrupt closing of The Schoolhouse early childhood program. That closure left 24 children without an early childhood “home,” and working families still scrambling for childcare.

There are two main learning rooms at The Schoolhouse, a non-profit early childhood learning center that opened in the old Poncha springs schoolhouse in 2020. Bathrooms for each classroom are inside the classrooms themselves. Photo Stephen Hall

Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze announced that an independent, third-party professional review of the internal agencies’ response to the investigation of The Schoolhouse is beginning.

According to his office, it was originally prompted by “complaints” made to DHS’ Child Protective Services department about conduct at the childcare facility. The release says that “DHS and the Sheriff’s Office are voluntarily initiating this process evaluation to help identify areas of strength and areas for improvement within their response protocols.”

The evaluation will focus on the entirety of the approach and responses within and between each department. The majority of schoolhouse parents were furious at the overwhelming show of force at their preschool, initially terrified that there must be some active shooter situation, and emotional about the delayed and cold manner in which they were notified to come get their children.

“State law sets forth what our responsibilities are and we want to do the best we can for our community as we uphold those duties. So, while steps like conducting investigations and issuing victims’ rights are statutorily mandated in situations like this, we also see that it can be a confusing and upsetting process in the community,” admitted Sheriff Spezze in a statement.

“I believe that undertaking an objective evaluation of our agencies’ response will help us identify areas we can improve our work across the many ways we are here to serve the people of Chaffee County. We look forward to learning from the process,” he added.

It’s not an apology.

In the meantime, the county says the Chaffee County Department of Human Services (DHS) and representatives of the Chaffee Childcare Initiative (CCI) Board of Directors that governs The Schoolhouse facility in Poncha Springs have met a few times over the past week “to determine how to best coordinate support for families impacted by The Schoolhouse’s closure.”

Given that weeks have gone by while working families cobble together some sort of childcare solutions, the need for urgency cannot be overstated.

In what some might see as a self-serving piece of information, the county reminded the public that the Department of Human Services and the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) provided the Chaffee Childcare Initiative a contribution of $144,000 from DHS reserves in May 2022 to support the expansion of The Schoolhouse’s childcare capacity. Part of this contribution was used by CCI in late 2022 to develop The Schoolhouse’s infant/toddler classroom — which did indeed expand its childcare capacity. The rest of it was earmarked for the next capacity expansion, planned for later this year.

Without specifying which groups, the release added that “the groups are now working on creative approaches to using the remaining balance of this investment for its original intent to support and expand local childcare offerings long-term”.

Reached by phone at the airport Friday morning, Commissioner Keith Baker said, “We realize the impact this is having on people’s lives because childcare is an important part of their daily lives. When their childcare is disrupted, it has an impact. The county is assisting to the extent the county can, to help find additional childcare to help solve this situation. We understand this is a hardship.”

The Colorado Department of Early Childhood (CDEC) is the state agency responsible for licensing of childcare centers across Colorado. CDEC’s assessment will determine when The Schoolhouse is eligible to reopen as a licensed childcare center.

DHS says they’re working with the Chaffee County-based Early Childhood Council (ECC) and the state CDEC “as they evaluate alternative options for childcare within other local childcare providers. CDEC is able to grant temporary expansions to increase the number of spaces a center is permitted to fill, which will increase childcare seats available in the community if these facilities are able and willing to accept additional children.”

There are 11 other early childhood care facilities in the county. To date, only one provider has expressed interest in and the ability to offer additional spaces. Existing childcare programs appear reluctant to expand their programs to place those children; many say they’re afraid that they’ll be reported too.

Families affected by The Schoolhouse closure can contact DHS at 719-530-2500 for additional information.