He said, she said on Tendercare finances

SARANAC LAKE – The former executive director of the Tendercare Tot Center, which will close its Lake Colby facility on Friday, says she believes the preschool and day-care provider’s finances were in good standing when she parted ways with the organization late last month.

The chairman of Tendercare’s Board of Directors, however, says that’s not true. He said the board’s decision to close the center was necessary to keep the nonprofit organization financially solvent, and that Tendercare was behind in its payments to the Saranac Lake Central School District, which owns the former Lake Colby Elementary School.

Deb Sior is the former executive director of Tendercare. She contacted the Enterprise this week, requesting to speak about the state of Tendercare’s operations prior to her departure at the end of January. During an interview at the Enterprise office, she claimed that Tendercare was up to date on tax payments and other bills.

“I never missed a payroll, I never missed payroll taxes – not a penny of it was ever late,” Sior said. “New York state taxes, I paid every two weeks, federal taxes I paid every two weeks – never late.”

But the board’s chairman, Ben Kline, said he doesn’t understand how Sior can make that assertion.

“You can ask the school district what the outstanding balance is,” Kline said. “But heat payments and rent payments going back months – that doesn’t sound like they were paid. … We would not have made the decision (to close) had we not been put in that position. It was a really tough decision to make. Any time an ex-employee starts making claims – I don’t know how to, or if it’s even worth, responding. Anybody can say, ‘It was all looking good when I left.’ Well, not really.”

Dan Bower, the Saranac Lake Central School District’s assistant superintendent for business, confirmed that some money is owed, but the exact amount in back payments hasn’t been determined. That figure will be presented to the board at the next meeting.

Bower said because the matter involves a potential legal issue involving an existing contract, he couldn’t comment any further.

Copies of Tendercare’s most recent federal 990 form, accessed on GuideStar, shows that the organization ended 2010 with more than $18,000 in profits. At the end of 2011, after the Lake Colby center was opened, Tendercare had incurred a loss of about $27,500.

Sior, who has a background in early childhood education, became Tendercare’s executive director in 2004. At the time, she said the organization was losing money. She said she helped secure better health insurance for employees and improved the quality of service the center provided.

“At the end of about four years, we were doing really well, and I started looking to expand,” Sior said. “The community needed it. We even had a community-wide meeting. … Everybody decided we had to do something.”

Sior explained that expanding the physical size of the Ray Brook day-care center wasn’t possible, so she began looking at other buildings. When the school district closed Lake Colby, Sior approached administrators about moving in.

“I talked to Jerry Goldman and Dan Bower and said, ‘We have no money, but this what we need to do for the community,'” she said. “And they were willing to give me a lease for $20,000 per year, which was a lot.”

To make it work, Sior spoke to officials with Head Start, an early childhood education program serving Clinton and Franklin counties, about sharing the lease. Tendercare’s board approved the plan in July 2011, and the center opened in September 2011, taking in 3- and 4-year-olds from the Ray Brook facility, which created additional slots there for infants and toddlers.

“The first year, we were living on borrowed time,” Sior said. “It was a brand-new business. We had literally doubled our size. We had 30 students in Ray Brook, and we had 45 over at Lake Colby.”

Sior said the expansion helped keep tuition costs low and let her give staff members raises. Adding more children at the Ray Brook center wasn’t possible, she said, since the state sets strict limits on how many children a day-care provider can have. Those limits are based on the ratio of children to adult staffers. For example, eight 4-year-olds need to have one adult present at all times.

“Ray Brook couldn’t sustain the quality of care and benefits to employees without a substantial increase in fees,” Sior said. “Lake Colby was actually helping to support Ray Brook.”

Sior said Tendercare made it through its first year at Lake Colby with minimum staffing. On top of lease payments, she said fuel oil bills were approximately $2,500 per month.

“And I kept in touch with Dan and Jerry, and they said, ‘We just need to have our money by July,’ which is the end of the fiscal year,” Sior said. “We met all our expenses, they were paid in full by July, and the August school-age program didn’t do as well as we thought (it would). … We started again in September, and soon after that, Adirondack Kinder Pals closed and everybody was horrified.”

ADK Kinder Pals, a day-care provider in Lake Placid, closed abruptly last fall.

Tendercare took on additional children, Sior said, and was at full capacity for the 2012-13 school year.

Kline said Tendercare was only able to meet its expenses at the end of the 2011-12 school year by asking parents to pre-pay for summer programs.

“We can’t do that every year when the heat bills are stacking up,” he said. “You can’t continue to do that.”

Sior said she would often delay depositing her own biweekly paycheck of about $1,200 to make sure other payments went through. In December, when health insurance premiums changed, Sior said she mistakenly entered two premium payments in one pay cycle. The mistake was caught, she said.

It was around that time that Sior’s mother’s health began deteriorating, and Sior said she decided it was time to think about retiring. In January, she spoke to the board about interviewing two current staffers – Amanda Hayes and Jessica Field – for the executive director position.

Sior said those interviews occurred while she was in Long Island visiting her mother. When she returned, she said she met with Kline and another board member.

“They said, ‘We’re terminating you, or letting you resign,'” Sior said. “I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘Well, you made those mistakes on the premiums and the girls’ withholding. And then you wrote on the pay stub of those girls that you owed them that money … and you asked employees to hold their checks.'”

Sior said she did ask Hayes and Field to hold one of their paychecks for 24 hours, apparently so other expenses could be met. Sior said if they had objected, she wouldn’t have done it.

Additionally, according to Sior, a representative of New York Family Benefits asked her to fill out a weekly form to track payments and expenses. Sior said she didn’t think it was necessary because taxes were being paid.

When that state representative met with board members in Saranac Lake, Sior said she thinks the board panicked.

“I have been totally cut off,” she said. “Not a board member or a staff member have been allowed to contact me in any way.”

Sior said she couldn’t determine whether she was fired or asked to resign. Kline declined to discuss the matter since it involves a former personnel member.

Some parents have asked if the board’s oversight of bills and expenses was careful enough.

“It’s a valid question,” Kline said. “I think, had we been getting the answers (to the questions) we were asking as to where we were and who was owed and what our financial position was in, had we been getting the real answers, we might have seen this coming a little faster. We had people coming to us after the fact to say, ‘This was going on,’ or, ‘This was going on.’ We can’t have that.”

Kline said some families had “accumulating balances of tuition,” and those children were still coming to the day-care center every week.

“The person who is in charge of the day-to-day operations should be the one to say, ‘OK, we’ve set a policy that if you don’t pay by X date, you don’t come,'” he said. “They continued to come. If we’re not getting the clear information and correct information, we can’t act.”

Asked if Tendercare had discussed negotiating a lower lease with the school district, Kline noted that did happen last year – but high heating costs remained.

As of Tuesday, Kline said Tendercare will be able to move forward with operations at its Ray Brook facility and continue to provide quality services.

“We have found that the other facilities have the ability to open up rooms and take on (kids), so children have places to go,” he said. “The school is looking at trying to put together an after-school program similar to what Lake Placid (school) does already.”

Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 25 or cmorris@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.