The congregation at First Baptist Church on Fifth Street will vote Nov. 8 on whether to close its five-star children’s center Dec. 22, six months earlier than originally announced.

Church officials said in June that they planned to close the popular center May 31 and tear down the building that houses the daycare and renovate parts of its facilities.

In a letter to the congregation sent Monday, church leaders said members would be asked to vote at 5:45 p.m. Nov. 8 during a called conference. Center staff and parents also were informed Monday.

The accelerated closing proposal is supported by Cynthia Jeffries, the center’s executive director, and First Baptist leadership consisting of staff, deacons and several church committees. The same officials sent a news statement Tuesday that repeated much of the congregation letter.

The center at 501 W. Fifth St. has been open for 50 years. In June, the center had a staff of 43 and about 150 children ages 8 weeks to 12 years. The Rev. Emily Hull McGee’s three children were among the enrollees.

Officials acknowledged the overall decline in enrollment, even with some new enrollees, has taken a financial toll that “has been real and continues to worsen.”

McGee could not be reached for immediate comment. Several parents said enrollment was down to between 70 and 80 children, along with three or four staff members having left.

“The past three months have seen monthly losses of tens of thousands of dollars, and that number has grown with each passing month,” according to the letter.

“As much as we would love to honor our original projection of a May 31, 2018, closure, we simply are not able to do so and uphold our two priorities of excellence in care and provisions for staff.”

Ninety percent of the voting members of the church approved the plan to close the center, which includes removing two buildings on its campus, and building a 4,200-square-foot addition and outdoor chapel at the rear of the sanctuary.

Meg Shipley has two children — Grant, age 2½, and Anna, 5 months — at the center. Anna was born two weeks before the initial closing announcement.

“There were a ton of tears shed this morning, with parents and staff feeling blindsided by the latest news,” Shipley said.

Shipley said she chose to keep her children at the center in part because of the energetic and loving atmosphere.

“I spent my entire maternity leave trying to find other centers that would work, but we weren’t comfortable with those options,” Shipley said. “We wanted to continue that environment for as long as we could, but we never thought it would end in December rather than May.”

Downsizing

The 92-year-old church building would shrink from its current 114,000 square feet to its sanctuary building.

The church said the decision was made to create a more nimble, efficient and consolidated space for its ministry. Officials were aware that some parents would remove their children early.

“Our decision was not made lightly or without a sense of grief and loss, but rather one made prayerfully and carefully, trusting in the God of new life even in the face of endings,” church officials said in June.

In Monday’s letter, officials said the church and center “cannot sustain this level of loss each month and still provide for our staff in the way we all desire” that includes providing severance packages to staff.

In Tuesday’s statement, church officials said that among the consideration for cutting expenses was “laying off large numbers of staff, reducing services and raising tuition.”

“But all agreed that doing so would fundamentally alter key components of what makes our center unique and would require too heavy a burden on everyone.”

Jessica Morphies has had her 18-month-old daughter, Vivian, at the center since she was a newborn. A sibling, who is 7, attended the center until going to school and still receives after-school care there.

“We are quite disappointed in the closing of such a great facility that has consistently been the top choice of local parents,” Morphies said.

“We had committed to stay through to the promised May 31 closing date to support the current staff and see out the duration of the school year.”

Morphies said it didn’t take long for the enrollment decline to become noticeable.

“We assumed the church and school had anticipated that in their preparations to close and trusted their commitment to the staff and parents.” Morphies said.

“The sudden decision to close December 22 after we have turned down other child-care opportunities leaves staff and families in a bind.

“We hope the staff and families can find alternatives quickly, but such a short notice is so disappointing from a church who made promises they obviously could not keep,” Morphies said.

Smitha Smith said her 16-month-old son, Rahmi, will be affected by the accelerated closing.

“We do not have a spot at another center at this time,” Smith said. “It is extremely challenging to find a center of comparable quality in this area, especially for those with infants, since those spots are even more scarce.”

Smith said she and her husband, Brad, are frustrated with the nine-week notice. She said church and center officials had indicated early in the process they were open to keeping the center in place through next summer.

“Overall, the process has felt very closed off,” Smith said. “We would have helped them work on solutions if we knew they were having problems.

“But we didn’t know they were in trouble until they had already made the decision to close.”

With a May 31 closing date, Smith said she and other parents had been working to secure a site to open a similar center in Lewisville for a seamless transition.

However, opening a spin-off center by June is no longer feasible because of missing a zoning submission last week, she said.

“We offered to raise funds to help the church keep the center running, but were turned down due to the approval process for donations over a certain amount,” Smith said. “This seemed trivial when considering the ramifications of a more sudden and unexpected closing like we are currently experiencing.

“I truly believe that together we can find a solution that takes care of the children’s center family,” Smith said.

Shipley has made arrangements with a staff member to work as a nanny for Anna, while the short-term plan for Grant is to put him in a half-day program at least twice a week “so he can gain from child-development training.”

“We understand their reasoning, and that they may have hoped the center would be sustainable even with the decline in enrollment,” Shipley said.

“But we’re disappointed to be getting nine weeks’ notice for our children in what already has proven to be a very challenging childcare environment.”

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rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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