The before and after care programs offered at FCPS elementary schools may not be the best deal for parents. Parents pay the child care providers directly, but FCPS staff selects the vendors and negotiates pricing on parents’ behalf. The FCPS bidding process unfairly limits which companies can apply, reduces parents’ involvement in the selection process, and doesn’t schedule the bidding competition in a way that drives better quality and lower costs.
Currently the YMCA runs the child care services at 27 schools, Stepping Stone Centers runs three, and Learning Tree Early Learning Center runs one. The fact that a single vendor has 87 percent of the market is likely due to the way FCPS structures its contract. In its most recent solicitation (RFP 18MISC7, for reference), FCPS sought to “establish a contract with one certifiable nonprofit organization interested in establishing a before, after-school and summer child care program at any elementary school that may become available during the 2018-2021 contract term.”
In other words, the winner of the contract gets a four-year period during which other competitors are basically locked out. Unless a vendor withdraws voluntarily or fails to perform, most schools will continue with their existing provider. Vendors that aren’t selected have to wait four years to try again to demonstrate their ability to perform the work. This makes it difficult for smaller providers to establish themselves at a single school to start building a record of successful performance to cite in future competitions, since the YMCA is guaranteed all available schools in the interim.
A more competitive approach would be to contract at the individual school level rather than establish a county-wide selection for any school that becomes available. Each contract could be made for a period of five years. The contracts should be staggered so there is a bidding opportunity every year for one-fifth of the schools. This provides a longer period of performance for the selected vendor, and also provides those that were not selected with an annual chance to compete rather than having to wait four years for another opportunity.
Contracting at the individual school level would mean that parents at each school could participate in its selection committee. Currently only FCPS staff evaluate the proposals, though they do consider parent surveys as a part of the evaluation. Though all vendors would need to meet common criteria, a site-based selection process means that vendors that were not selected could receive more tailored feedback as to how they might improve their offering for the particular needs of the school they applied to.
For the bidding process to be truly competitive, the FCPS building rental policy would need to be changed. Unlike other counties, Frederick County does not allow for-profit child care providers to rent space in its schools, which means some vendors are automatically excluded from the bidding process. FCPS purchases textbooks, school supplies, and even multimillion-dollar buildings from for-profit companies. What should matter is whether a vendor has competitive pricing and delivers a quality service, not its tax status. Excluding small, local, family-owned, for-profit child care businesses isn’t fair and is certainly not in the interests of parents, since these organizations can offer lower prices and more personalized service than large, national nonprofits.
FCPS appears to have erred when it stated in its request for proposal package that “Only non-profit organizations are eligible to submit proposals per COMAR regulation.” Section 7-109 of COMAR says Boards of Education “Shall give priority to nonprofit child care programs for use of public school facilities before and after school hours,” but doesn’t exclude for-profit providers. Other Maryland counties do select for-profit child care companies. It’s Frederick County Public Schools’ building rental regulation 100-1 that needs to be revised to allow this.
Even if the criteria FCPS used in its evaluation of bids placed some weight on the tax status of applicants — which they really shouldn’t — at least that would be more fair than categorically excluding for-profits. If FCPS didn’t want to write contracts at the level of individual schools, it could offer contracts for groups of schools on an annual basis. These are compromises but would still be more competitive than the current process, which gives incumbents an advantage.
It’s telling that all three charter schools in Frederick County have chosen a local, family-owned child care business that has more competitive rates than its nonprofit competitors. With the next contract period coming up in 2021, this year is the right time for FCPS to consider revising its building rental policy and contract structure to promote the kind of competition that makes it more likely that more parents will have access to high-quality, affordable child care.