SEOUL — Parents of nearly 100 preschool students soon could be scrambling to find day care for their children if military officials determine a long-running Christian preshool at U.S. Army Garrison Yongan has been operating outside of Army regulations.
Garrison officials say a recent anonymous complaint prompted them to look at whether the Mustard Seed Preschool has been operating illegally since it opened in 1976. They have determined that the Army had the authority to establish a chapel-sponsored preschool but found no regulations explaining how to do so, according to Yongsan commander Col. Michael Masley.
During a meeting with parents Friday afternoon, Masley said attorneys are starting to investigate the issue. If the preschool is operating illegally and a way can’t be found for it to operate within regulations, it will be closed, he said.
While he did not know how long the legal review would take, he said parents would be given 30 days’ notice if the facility is to be shut down.
“As the proud father of an alumnus, I support the program. As the garrison commander, I will do what is legally right,” Masley said.
Ninety-three children attend the preschool, housed in a handful of classrooms in the South Post Chapel.
Furthermore, officials have determined that not all employees of the preschool have undergone the necessary background checks, following renewed concern worldwide about hiring practices at defense child care facilities. That discovery, however, will not force the facility to shutter its classrooms, Masley told the parents.
All nine Mustard Seed employees have undergone some background checks, officials said, but an unspecified number have not undergone more thorough checks mandated by the military.
Scrutiny on child care workers has increased since allegations of abuse and improper background checks arose at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall day care this fall. Thirty-eight staffers have since been suspended, according to The Washington Post.Until those checks are completed, Masley said, a Child, Youth and School Services employee will be stationed in every classroom to comply with operating policies and to act as “a second set of eyes.”
“We have no reason to believe that they’ve done anything wrong or any reason to be concerned that they shouldn’t be here watching our kids,” Masley said.
During Friday’s meeting, parents said they were worried they wouldn’t be able to find day care on short notice if Mustard Seed closes. One said parents might lose money if they have to pay a standard deposit for a year’s worth of day care in a South Korean facility, even if they would only be stationed here a few more months.
Many said they sent their children to Mustard Seed because of its Christian affiliation and because they believed the quality of education there was better than at other on-post facilities.
“Whatever the legality, there’s a severe lack of options here in Area II” for child care, one parent said at the meeting.
Chaplain Col. Robert Whitlock said Mustard Seed is a unique program that can’t be found at any other Army base, and told parents that the garrison wants to make sure families are cared for.
“We’re not going to have a knee-jerk response to this,” he said.
Mustard Seed director Anya Jackson said she doesn’t understand why the preschool can’t be allowed to remain open until Yongsan facilities relocate to Camp Humphreys in 2016 as part of a larger plan to consolidate the U.S. military footprint in South Korea.
“Now they’re saying (Mustard Seed) is so illegal, yet for thirty-something years it wasn’t,” she said.
The preschool is funded by set “donations” paid by parents instead of tuition. The donations cover everything from snacks and supplies to teacher salaries.
That money is placed into a Chaplains Tithes and Offerings Fund that is essentially administered by the chapel, Jackson said.
“It’s like we have an account with them (the chapel) and they manage our account to make sure we have enough money,” she said. However, the chapel does not contribute any money to the program.
“We don’t belong to anybody, and I think that’s part of the problem,” she said.