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Tot Spot appeals state's decision to deny Hillsboro license

Josiah Spilde two-month-old lies in his chair in this September 2016 photo at Tots Spot in Hillsboro, N.D. (Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald)

HILLSBORO, N.D.—A Hillsboro day care provider is appealing a move by the state that shut down the facility, but email exchanges indicate the owner isn't interested in reopening the center as it was.

Tot Spot Childcare and Learning Centers of Fargo sent a letter last week asking the North Dakota Department of Human Services about the process of appealing the denial of its child care license for its Hillsboro location, according to documents obtained by the Herald. The state cited 26 violations that occurred at the facility since it opened Aug. 30, 2016. Tot Spot closed late last month.

"I just don't think we were meant to be in Hillsboro, I guess," Tot Spot owner Kari Morehouse said.

The closing has left parents scrambling to find care as leaders and Tot Spot try to recruit another provider to take over the three-year lease at the facility. Morehouse said she would like her license back so she can do group day care, which can serve as many as 30 children. A center can serve more, but Tot Spot likely won't reopen as a larger care provider.

"I honestly don't want to open or reopen another center in Traill County again," Morehouse wrote in a letter to Human Services.

'Stacked against us'

The violations come from multiple visits and appear to be repeat offenses, according to Human Services. Allegations include staff members being hired without completing the background check process, missing paperwork and not comforting distressed children.

The first visit came in October, just weeks after the facility opened, when Humans Services heard of the concerns.

Goals were set for staff, but "the operator of Tot Spot Hillsboro has shown that she is either unwilling or unable to follow the rules prescribed by the department," Human Services wrote in its denial notice to Morehouse.

Morehouse said she believes the violations mostly focused on errors in paperwork and were not enough to close the facility down.

"I think we were unfairly scrutinized," she said. "I think it takes every day care a good year to get people trained in a new county, in a new community with completely new staff.

"It just seemed like everything was stacked against us."

There is a history of Tot Spot Hillsboro not following North Dakota's child care regulations, said Amy Olsen, early childhood services administrator for Human Services.

"What the department's job is is to maintain the health and safety guidelines," she said. "They're put in place for health and safety reasons. We have an enormous amount of trust put in us by parents."

Reopening as a smaller provider won't happen until the appeal process is complete, and it's uncertain how long that could take, Olsen said. She declined to comment on the likelihood of Tot Spot regaining its license.

Moving on

Tot Spot was recruited to Hillsboro to fill a need Hillsboro leaders have made a priority, but the provider's likely exit is a setback in providing enough child care, a goal that officials had hoped would help attract more families to the area.

The building in which Tot Spot was located previously housed the Main Discovery Creative Education Center, which closed in September 2015. The Hillsboro Economic Development Corp. used a $147,000 loan to buy the building for Tot Spot. Plans were in the works to build a facility in Hillsboro for Tot Spot so another day care provider could take over.

But that deal fell through when businessman Mike Kozojed withdrew his verbal commitment to fund the project. With the closing of Tot Spot, the care provider must either be successful in its appeal or find another tenant to take over the lease.

There has been interest in the building, said Paula Suda, superintendent for Hillsboro Public Schools and the EDC's president. But in the meantime, parents need to find someone to watch their children. Some have turned to Mayville State University's child care program, while former Tot Spot workers are taking in children—they can host as many as five children in each home.

"They're begging and pleading grandparents, neighbors and friends just in order to get day care right now until hopefully something gets settled," she said. "It's tough on the community right now with no day care. It really paralyzes a community."

There are other day care options in Hillsboro, but almost all are smaller home-based providers. Still, the community has worked together to help in the short term, Suda said.

The EDC has received more than $176,000 in pledges to pay off the loan, but "we are in a holding pattern until daycare is back in the building that we own," Suda said.

Providing day care still is a priority for the EDC as it looks to keep and attract families to Hillsboro, she added.

"We need to move on and get day care here as soon as we can so we don't lose the workers and don't lose the families," Suda said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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