Naked City

Another Door Opens

Cheryl Fries led the protest against Open Door's eviction.
Cheryl Fries led the protest against Open Door's eviction. (Photo By John Anderson)

The Open Door Preschool, which was on the verge of losing its Clarksville lease and being driven into the suburbs, will remain at its West 10th address for at least five more years. That's either thanks to, or in spite of, Open Door's landlord, the Austin/Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, depending on whom you ask.

Under the new lease approved by the A/TCMHMR Center board Thursday, Open Door will pay more than twice its current rent at the Rettberg Sutherland building -- but will also have twice as much space at its disposal. The nonprofit preschool says it's willing to take on the increased financial burden because months of searching have not turned up a site in the central city that serves the school nearly as well as Rettberg Sutherland, which is fitted with kid-sized toilets and sinks, small classrooms, and wheelchair-friendly ramps and doorways. Open Door, which was founded 25 years ago and has expanded to three locations, is alone in Austin in offering services to both children with physical disabilities and mental impairments, and to children without special needs. The past year has seen a handful of day care centers in Austin shut their doors due to high rents.

The A/TCMHMR Center's decision last year to evict Open Door provoked an angry reaction from parents of children who attend the school, and highlighted painful realities faced by physically disabled and mentally impaired populations in a state famous for its stingy social spending. A/TCMHMR claimed it needed to relocate services to Rettberg Sutherland to save on rent it was spending at other locations. The Center says it has spent more than $1 million on programs this year that won't be reimbursed by the state. The demand for mental health services, particularly drug rehabilitation, has exploded in Travis County, says spokeswoman Beverly Scarborough.

Open Door parents challenged the right of the A/TCMHMTR Center (which is governed by a local board, not by the state's MHMR agency) to evict Open Door from Rettberg Sutherland, pointing out that the building had been built for the express purpose of serving disabled preschoolers. The man whose name adorns the building, Don Rettberg, joined the parents' cause, telling the A/TCMHMR board that using the space for programs not targeted at disabled children violated the intent of the fundraising campaigns he led in 1985 and 1995 to build and expand the $2 million building.

The A/TCMHMR board agreed to negotiate with Open Door, and the compromise approved Thursday was the result: Open Door will have to come up with a lot more rent -- more than $4,000 per month in the first year of the lease (increasing to nearly $6,000 in two years), compared to the current rate of $1,700 -- to offset expenses the Center is incurring by keeping its staff and services at other locations. Open Door director Chris Dietche says the school will have to expand considerably to meet the cost, but with 46,000 children in the Austin area unserved by child care, he doubts that will be a problem. Still, says Dietche, his school would prefer to put more money into teacher pay rather than rent. Longtime teachers at Open Door still make only about $10 an hour, says Dietche. Tuition at the school, already $480 a month, may have to be raised, he said.

The A/TCMHMR board did agree to charge Open Door below-market rent and allow an annual discount of up to $8,000 for each disabled child who attends the preschool. But Rettberg scolded A/TCMHMR board members Thursday for not giving Open Door a much bigger break on rent, saying the preschool's mission to serve the disabled fulfills the purpose for which the Rettberg Sutherland Building was donated. Cheryl Fries, whose daughter attends Open Door and who led the protest against the preschool's eviction, says the A/TCMHMR Center had no right to use Open Door as a means to satisfy its need for financial resources. "Is it right for them to make a profit on the backs of parents who are desperate for Open Door's services?" asks Fries.

But A/TCMHMR Center's chief financial officer Sam Bowker points out that the city of Austin, whose donations of federal grant money were the main catalyst for both the construction and recent expansion of Rettberg Sutherland, has approved the use of the building for programs not targeted at disabled preschoolers. Bowker says the Center's board feels it has every right to insist that Open Door pay its way, and disputes the contention that the Center is reaping a huge profit from Open Door. He says Open Door's rent will provide only a slim margin of revenue -- about $14,000 annually -- by the third year.

The A/TCMHMR Center is currently operating at a loss, says Bowker, by refusing to discontinue services even though the state won't pay for them, and the board has decided its commitment to its own constituency outweighs that of Open Door. "A significant number of families involved in Open Door are not below the poverty line," says Bowker. "We cannot be perceived as providing a subsidy for parents who can afford day care for their children."

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Open Door Preschool, Austin / Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center, Beverly Scarborough, Don Rettberg, Chris Dietche, Cheryl Fries, Sam Bowker

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