Forest Hill Preschool set to shutter amid uncertainty around development efforts

A San Francisco preschool that has served families in the Forest Hill neighborhood for more than five decades is expected to shut down in May, despite repeated efforts by city leaders to keep it running.

The nonprofit Forest Hill Preschool at 250 Laguna Honda Blvd. serves some 60 children annually. It was formerly operated by the Forest Hill Christian Church, which still serves as its landlord but in 2016 announced controversial plans to level the church building, preschool and a parking lot to make way for a senior housing complex at the site.

The project faced a number of challenges, including neighborhood opposition and concerns that the preschool would be displaced permanently, that stoked a campaign to save it. Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee, whose district includes Forest Hill, initially opposed the project but supported a later version that included space for the preschool.

However, The City pulled funding for the senior housing in early 2018, months before it was scheduled to break ground, citing geotechnical issues with the site, among other things.

Continued uncertainty over the future of the church and its property is now forcing the preschool to shut its doors. The preschool’s director, Mary Lavino, said that families were “heartbroken” when she informed them last November that the preschool would not reopen for the next school year.

The church, said Lavino, made no guarantees that it would retain the property for another school year.

“We were talking to the church and they weren’t sure now that the project fell through if they would sell or what to do with the property,” said Lavino. “We had to make a decision — I can’t open up a school and say, OK we will close in December of next year.”

Susan Parsley, the church’s pastor, confirmed that the church’s leadership is in a “period of discernment.”

“We have no definite answers at this time about whether staying here is our best option,” said Parsley, adding that the church is “considering to sell the property and move.”

She said that a small congregation and the financial burdens of maintaining the large property have forced the church to consider its options.

“We didn’t say we would be gone, we just didn’t know and that’s still the case,” said Parsley.

Lavino said that she and her staff have spent the past year searching for a new location in the neighborhood, but have been unable to secure a space that meets the families’ needs and the school’s budget. After becoming a nonprofit, Lavino said that the church has been renting out the preshcool’s space at subsidized rent, charging some $4,000 a month.

“Even if I did find a location our program would change drastically — our rates would go way up. Our rent was reasonable at this location,” said Lavino.

In recent months, Yee has called attention to a number of childcare providers that operate out of church spaces and are increasingly placed at risk of displacement or closure as congregations dwindle and church-owned properties are placed on the market.

In an effort to increase protections for early childcare programs in such vulnerable predicaments, he introdued legislation last month, along with Supervisor Gordon Mar, calling for temporary zoning controls for developers seeking to convert buildings with childcare uses into residential or other uses.

The controls aim to “ensure that any future development or change of use must evaluate the possible loss of childcare services and incentivizes maintaining those facilities and critical services,” Yee said.

“Child care centers just like Forest Hill Preschool are at risk of closure throughout our city, leaving families and children without essential care. Any family that’s had to search for childcare knows that the demand for child care far outpaces the supply,” Yee said. “This reality demands that we protect our existing centers.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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