Pre-School Capacity Based On Attendance At One Time Rather Than Total Enrollment

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Feb 28, 2024

Pacific Oaks is an early childhood education center for children and families in Pasadena, California.  The Pre-School offers part-time classes in the morning or afternoon, as well as full day childcare.  The part-time programs take place in different yards on school grounds.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) issued a license to Pacific Oaks to operate a day care center.  The license set a total capacity at 77.

In July 2013, Pacific Oaks applied to increase the preschool programs’ capacity to 140.  DSS denied the application.  In August 2013, Pacific Oaks emailed certain parents that due to the denial of the application, the School would not be able to provide a space for their children for the 2013-2014 school year.  In October 2013, Pacific Oaks again applied to increase their capacity to 140.  DSS granted the application in April 2014.

A group of parents filed suit, alleging that the School was operating at overcapacity and in violation of its existing license, and knowingly concealed this information from the parents.  The parents also claimed that Pacific Oaks falsely advertised that it had “state-of-the-art” play yards and facilities.

The case was stayed while the parents worked to establish a class action claim.  Eventually, in February 2020, the parties filed for summary adjudication.  The parents argued that Pacific Oaks engaged in unlawful and fraudulent conduct because Pacific Oaks violated the DSS license capacity limit when it enrolled more than 77 students each year during the class period.  The trial court denied the parents’ motion, finding the term “capacity,” did not mean the total number of children enrolled at the facility.  Rather, the capacity had to be measured based on time of day, and Pacific Oaks’ different programs had less than 77 students present on campus at one time.

The parents appealed, arguing that Pacific Oaks engaged in unlawful conduct by operating in violation of the capacity limit set forth in their DSS license.  In particular, the parents argued that more than 77 children were enrolled at Pacific Oaks during each year in issue, and the term “capacity limitation” in the licensing regulations refers to enrolled children, irrespective of how many might be physically present at the facility at any particular time.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the parents.  In looking at the plain language of the regulations, “capacity” is defined as “the maximum number of children authorized to be provided care and supervision at any one time.”  The Court of Appeals determined that the phrase “at any one time” meant the number of children who may be physically present at a childcare facility while under the facility’s care and supervision.  Here, the enrollment numbers did not reflect the number of children simultaneously present, or expected to be present, under Pacific Oak’s care and supervision.

The Court of Appeals also considered that counting enrolled children does not assist in determining whether the facility has sufficient physical space or whether it can maintain required teacher-student ratios.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals determined that measuring capacity by counting children in attendance is consistent with the California Child Day Care Facilities Act, the statute authorizing the regulations.  Using the parents’ approach for measuring capacity would restrict the amount of potentially available child care, and the Court of Appeals was mindful of California’s shortage of regulated child care, with only a small fraction of families receiving child care who need it.  For example, using the parents’ analysis, if a facility with a capacity limitation of 20 provided care to one group of 15 children in the morning, and another group of 15 children in the afternoon, with no overlapping times when all 30 children are present, the facility would violate its license.  While there are times that enrollment does reflect attendance for a facility, that was not the case here.  The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Baker v. Pacific Oaks Education Corp. (2024) 99 Cal.App.5th 77.

Note: This case provides clarity for pre-schools operating in California, particularly those who provide separate programs in the morning and afternoon.

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