A small Hawaii community’s solution to a child care shortage runs afoul of state policies
HAMAKUA COAST (HawaiiNewsNow) - Known for its lush landscape, rocky cliffs and upcountry slopes, Hawaii Island’s Hamakua Coast is home to several farming communities.
There, many residents live off grid far away from the conveniences of town.
“It still is very rural. There was no preschool options,” said resident and mother of three Rachel Conder.
So moms in the area decided to change that, banding together to combat the child care shortage by creating a private club where their kids could come together to play and learn. Members say everything was going great until the state found out and accused them of breaking the law.
“We all had the best intentions of helping the community. The children. The parents,” said Ariel Maguire, a part-time accountant and mother to four girls under the age of 7. “We were made to feel like we did something really wrong.”
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Maguire said the group was focused on enrichment and solving a shared problem together.
“We all kind of got together and said is there anything that we can do that all of our kids can be occupied and learning to sort of help each other out,” said Maguire.
It’s how Kulilke Learning Garden was born.
“We were not trying to be a licensed preschool,” Maguire said. “It wasn’t feasible here. We’re off grid. And we simply don’t qualify because of that.”
Together, they established the center using what’s called a Private Membership Association, or PMA.
By definition, it’s a non-profit organization that brings together people who work in the same industry or share common interests and goals. Members typically pay a fee in exchange for access to benefits and support.
“A quick Google search pops up many schools that are PMAs on the mainland. So I started looking at them. How they were set up,” Maguire said. “We got our business license. We got a got a 501(c)(3) awarded from the IRS. We got all the contracts done.” She even found a teacher who’d been working in the classroom more than 20-years.
“She had come from a PMA school in Washington. That was her last position before she moved here,” Maguire said.
The learning center officially opened in January 2022. It was single classroom on Maguire’s farm.
To belong to the PMA, parents paid a $40 annual membership fee. In addition they paid $600 per month and were required to spend six hours volunteering with the children.
“Some parents were in the classroom all day, some were in for projects throughout the week, some were in charge of laundry,” Maguire said.
Conder said she enrolled her son after she wasn’t able to get him into any other preschools nearly 40 minutes away.
“I looked into different schools,” she said. “I did get on a waiting list. Didn’t get in.”
She says sending him to Kulike Learning Garden was the right choice.
Children spent their days doing arts and crafts, baking, learning about farm animals and gardening.
“They planted this,” Conder said pointing at one of the many gardens on the property. “Then they’d harvest it and eat it. He (Conder’s son) loved it here. He thrived.”
Word about the learning center quickly spread within the rural community.
Initially, there were six children. But that number quickly grew to 17.
“And there were even more families visiting us, we didn’t have the capacity for that,” said Maguire. When asked when she realized there might be an issue, she responded, “The moment I was standing at this fence with DHS.”
That was last November. Maguire says someone sent the state an anonymous tip.
“They just starting interrogating us,” she said.
“I did say multiple times we’re a Private Membership Association and none of them knew what that was except for the representative from the state Attorney General’s office. And what he told me was OK, that’s fine. You’re going to receive a letter of violation in the mail that you’ll be able to contest as a PMA.”
Maguire says a few days later investigators were back accusing her of running an unlicensed preschool.
She says she tried to call DHS to explain but couldn’t get in touch with anyone. So she drove to the agency’s Hilo office and hand-delivered a letter to officials, but says she got no response.
Then on Dec. 17, Maguire says she was served.
“They never at any point said we’re preparing to take you to court and fine us $55,000,” she said.
Officials at the Department of Human Services say under Hawaii law all preschools need to be licensed by the state.
“Currently PMAs are not exempt from licensing requirements,” said Scott Morishige, DHS spokesperson.
Here is a list of the current exemptions.
The division administrator says a license is required to ensure children are in a safe environment.
“Our concern about unlicensed facilities is that we don’t have any way to monitor or regulate those facilities that are not licensed,” said Morishige, adding that providers are encouraged to reach out to the department if they have questions or would like to get more details on the requirements for setting up a licensed facility.
Maguire says she chose to settle the case outside of court.
In the end, she agreed not to reopen and paid a $5,000 fine. She said she wanted to defend the legality of her PMA, but with four young children doesn’t have the time or the money.
“I would hope that a lawyer who is familiar with PMAs could pick this up and help us get this recognized by the state,” Maguire said, “so families who are in these more rural areas can start their own little pods.”
Meanwhile, many families in the community remain without childcare as they struggle to make sure their children are prepared for school. “A PMA seems like such an easy answer,” Conder said. “We need to think outside the box.”
HNN asked DHS if it knows about any other PMAs. Officials said there is one other it’s currently investigating.
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