Long-running Sunset preschool fighting to secure its future

A bilingual preschool imperiled by the pending sale of the church-owned property where it has operated for nearly four decades is trying to buy the building itself in an attempt to secure its future in the Sunset District.

Wah Mei School, located at 1400 Judah St., offers affordable childcare spaces and Chinese-American programming to some 260 families annually and is not only considered to be an institution in the community, but a life-line to many families.

Its standing as The City’s first and longest-running bilingual preschool was placed at risk last year when its landlord, the United Methodist Church, listed the property for sale, the San Francisco Examiner reported previously.

The church last year sued for control of the properties and assets of San Francisco’s Glide Foundation, which also houses and operates a childcare program at 434 Ellis St. The dispute escalated last month when Glide filed a counter lawsuit against the church, as reported by the Examiner.

It is unclear if the Wah Mei property’s sale is related to the church’s ongoing legal challenges. A UMC spokesperson did not return requests for comment by press time.

While church did not respond to a first offer made by the preschool, Ben Wong, Wah Mei’s executive director, confirmed last week that the school has now entered “contract negotiations” with the church.

Wah Mei spent months searching for a new location in the neighborhood, but was not successful. The preschool’s community feared the eventual displacement of what one parent described as a “hidden gem in the neighborhood.”

“When we were moving to the Sunset we looked at a lot of different day care options, which were in-home, smaller places. I really liked the diversity [at Wah Mei],” said Christina Wong Singh, whose daughter attends the preschool. “It feels very down to earth and very much for working families — a good mix of socio-economic backgrounds and family dynamics.”

Wong Singh added that the church “made it clear they are looking for the highest bidder — they [did not appear] to be open to conversations.”

“Wah Mei has been renting the building for 40 years— don’t they have some equity?” she said.

Wah Mei’s foundation is rooted in serving the educational needs of recent immigrants, but it’s programming has long evolved to bridge and nurture language and literacy development in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with classes conducted in concurrently in English and Chinese. Half of the preschool’s enrollment is reserved for children of low-income families.

The preschool, which will celebrate its 45th anniversary this year and is currently seeking a legacy status designation by The City, was recently awarded an expansion grant to serve up to 60 additional low-income students.

The high cost of childcare and limited space has made securing preschool spaces increasingly challenging for families across the Bay Area. In San Francisco, some 2,500 children are on waitlists for childcare services, the vast majority of them under the age of three.

The issue prompted a ballot measure spearheaded by Board of Supervisors Board President Norman Yee and former supervisor Jane Kim to fund additional childcare services and educator wages. Proposition C was approved by voters last summer, but is currently facing legal challenges over the threshold by which it passed.

Anny Li, whose daughters attend Wah Mei, said that their tuition is subsidized.

“We pay a family fee,” said Li. “I have no idea where to send my kids if they close —most of the time families have to wait at least one year to get a spot.”

Wah Mei’s struggle also illustrates a larger issue, which is that many childcare programs rent space from churches, and those spaces are increasingly in jeopardy as congregations dwindle.

Last month, Yee and District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar aimed to increase protections for such programs by seeking temporary zoning controls for developers seeking to convert buildings with childcare uses into residential or other uses citywide.

The controls aim to “to deter whoever who is trying to buy” properties that house childcare spaces, Yee told the Examiner, noting that there are several other providers citywide in similar predicaments. The controls must gain approval at the San Francisco Planning Commission.

“While we need to expand access to affordable childcare, we also need to protect the childcare facilities we already have,” Mar said in a statement. “These services are vulnerable as rents rise and families struggle to afford the cost of care, and this legislation gives us a chance to preserve childcare facilities under threat of displacement.”

Wong, of Wah Mei, said that while he cannot gauge the impact of the zoning controls, it is “critical that we take a pause of what we are doing with our real estate in San Francisco,” adding that the importance of housing “is parallel to the importance of child care and safe places for young people.”

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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