Abilities special education preschool’s abrupt closure in Wilton leaves 25 children without services

WILTON – A special education preschool closed abruptly Friday, after the owner was threatened with eviction over unpaid rent from the coronavirus shutdown.

Abilities served 25 special education children between ages three and four. There are only three special education preschools in the county, and the other two are full, with openings unlikely until September.

It’s a desperate situation for one family, who asked not to be identified to preserve their daughter’s medical privacy. She has a rare genetic disorder that is linked to severe developmental delays.

“She showed a lot of regression during the breaks with speech,” her mother said. “What’s going to go on if she doesn’t go to school for the next two to five months? It will cause her delays to be significantly more.”

And it’s not a straight-forward matter to teach her daughter those skills. But the masters-level therapists at Abilities had the training and experience to invent ways to help her learn.

“It’s going to be up to us to figure that out now,” her mother said.

The reasons for the closure were under dispute. The landlord and owner offered conflicting accounts. But the decision left school district officials and the Saratoga County Department of Health scrambling to find a way to get essential services to the children.

Each child was determined to need an intensive, half-day special education preschool due to developmental delays. At school, they received speech therapy, and many also received occupational and physical therapy, to help with skills like walking up steps or holding a pencil.

Most of the children were also approved to attend the school through the summer because therapists documented that if they missed one week of school, it took them two weeks to get back to the skills they had before the break. Not being in school for 10 weeks could lead to them losing half a school year’s worth of progress. Now they are facing a five-month gap.

As an alternative to preschool, therapists can visit children at their homes, but there’s a long waiting list for that, too. Saratoga County is taking the lead on looking for options.

“They’re doing everything they can to identify solutions,” said Saratoga County spokeswoman Christine Rush. “It’s not an easy task. Meanwhile you have these families and kids who need services.”

Parents are furious with the lack of notice they got of the closure, which was announced via email five days before the special education classrooms closed.

By state law, schools must give 90 days notice, in writing, with a plan for the “safe and orderly transition” of each student to a new facility that can provide the required services. That hasn’t happened.

Owner Valerie Keen said she was disturbed at the demise of the school, which she opened four years ago. Until the pandemic, the school hosted programs for toddlers. But her dream was to have an inclusive preschool, with both special and general education students learning together. She opened the first inclusive classroom in September 2020.

That went well, so she opened a second classroom last September. The classrooms hosted four classes: two in the morning and two in the afternoon.

Then, in October, the landlord served her with an eviction notice for $22,000 in unpaid rent during the shutdown.

Landlord Dean Kolligian is a member of the Saratoga Springs school board. Almost all of the special education children at the preschool will attend the Saratoga Springs school district.

Kolligian said his role as a school board member “has nothing to do” with his decisions regarding the preschool.

He declined to be interviewed but offered a written statement.

“Abilities continues to remain open and operating because we understand this IS about the children they serve. The decision to close that specific program was theirs alone,” he wrote. “We are in frequent communication with Abilities to attempt to find a resolution on this issue and will continue to do everything we can to work with them through these challenging times.”

The eviction could not be processed until January, after the moratorium on evictions ended.

In the meantime, Keen said Kolligian offered, in writing, to forgive half the rent if she paid $11,000. She said she paid him in September and October, while also staying current with the rent.

But that meant using the cash flow cushion she had in her bank account. She told him that might put her under, she said, because state and county funds for special education services typically arrive six weeks after the service. She needed the cushion so she could pay her therapists while waiting for the next check.

The newest group of students also needed more services, costing more money as they hired more therapists. She asked the state to increase her “provisional rate” as a new school, which was a per-day cost of $91.60 per child. Her actual daily cost was about $159 per child. But it became clear an increase could be years away. Between the lack of cash cushion, the six-week wait for pay, and the low rate, she began to realize she wouldn’t be able to make payroll.

At that point, in November, everyone took steps. Saratoga County issued two checks to her on an emergency basis, to get her money faster. Kolligian reduced her rent from $6,800 to $5,000. Keen stopped taking any pay. Her preschool director reduced her salary to minimum wage and her bookkeeper took a $3-an-hour pay cut.

But it wasn’t enough.

Last week, she had $56 in her bank account, seven days before she had to make a payroll of $23,000.

She made payroll after payments came in, but she told the state that unless someone could authorize an immediate rate increase, she would have to close.

“The state does not pay enough money to support these programs,” she said.

State officials told her she had to file a 90-day shutdown notice.

“I said, first of all, I don’t have 90 days,” she said. “I can’t pay my staff, the program has to shut down.”

She calculated that if she dropped the special education students and the staff needed for them, she could continue the preschool for general education students through June. So she told all of the families that on Monday. Then she got another eviction notice.

“I’ve been paying the rent! But they hired a litigating attorney to take us to court,” she said. “So now my gen-ed preschool is going to get kicked out.”

Parents have called her names, telling her that she made bad business decisions and should have told them about the financial problems earlier. She’s not angry about the criticism. She feels devastated too.

“This is my life’s work and it’s being completely destroyed,” she said.

She does not plan to reopen the preschool.

“I’m done,” she said.

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