Hilton Head daycare owner asked parents to pre-pay, they said, then vanished. Now what?

This story has been updated with information from a statement from Little Island Preschool’s former owner.

When the owner of Little Island Preschool on Hilton Head Island messaged parents in recent weeks offering a discount on six months of childcare, some took advantage of it.

Half a year of daycare normally costs parents $3,900. Owner Shay Jordan said she would accept $1,950 — but only if parents paid right away. She said the HVAC in the Arrow Road preschool was out, and she could fix it right away if parents paid ahead.

Then, they said, she disappeared.

The daycare center’s license lapsed on July 9, and parents were left not knowing whether they’d have childcare.

Reached Saturday, Jordan said the confusion was part of a transfer of ownership of the daycare to Debora Bernal that was finalized June 25 after months of uncertainty.

Jordan signed a termination of her lease on July 9 so Bernal could sign a new lease for the property, but parents said they were unaware how far the the daycare had fallen into debt — which is why Jordan repeatedly asked for funds in the month leading up to the sale.

“I knew something was wrong about three months into the year when Shay stopped giving us checks and paystubs and gave us cash,” daycare teacher Samantha Browder told The Island Packet.

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Google Maps

Browder, who has worked at the daycare for a year, said Jordan then was late paying about 14 teachers who work at the school.

“I haven’t been paid in two weeks because she doesn’t have the money,” Browder said.

Parents of children at the daycare said they were encouraged to pay ahead in cash. While some paid on credit cards and can dispute the charges, others are out upwards of $5,000.

In a statement Saturday, Jordan said the center lost 20 students in May, leaving a $48,000 hole in her budget. She acknowledged she was behind on paying staff, but said she had plans to refund the parents’ money.

“Not being able to pay employees and friends who have worked with you for years is the worst feeling in the world,” Jordan wrote. “Any people that need a cash refund have been contacted with the amount they are owed and I am figuring out how to pay this.”

Jordan said she was never evicted from the property, but instead terminated her lease to turn over the business. Although parents said they were told she was moving to the Dominican Republic, Jordan said she’s still living in South Carolina with her children.

As of Friday morning, two people had filed police reports about the alleged fraud, and Maj. Bob Bromage of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said both are under investigation.

Parents from the preschool were invited to a community meeting with the new owner and staff Thursday night. After the meeting ended, the electricity was turned off because the bill wasn’t paid.

Jordan said that was because the new owner didn’t transfer the utilities.

The preschool was closed Friday. The new owner released the following statement:

“Little island Preschool is under new management as of Tuesday, July 9. We have had several setbacks we were not aware of and unfortunately some parents and staff members were affected negatively by some decisions that the previous owner has made.”

Childcare on Hilton Head Island

Little Island’s troubles come as other daycare centers struggle on Hilton Head.

Providence Early Learning Center, down the street from Little Island, is closing on Aug. 16.

The director of the daycare, Cecile Bibaud, said “quality infant care is so very expensive,” and “part of the problem is staffing, just like every other business on the south end.”

Closing the center sent parents on Hilton Head Island looking for other child-care facilities, and some were enticed by Little Island’s pay-ahead option.

But island-wide, preschool choices are slim.

Of the 11 licensed centers listed on South Carolina’s state childcare licensing database, only four are enrolled in the ABC quality rating program, which periodically reviews conditions at the centers and rates them based on program administration, staff development, child well-being, family communication and teaching practices.

Christ Lutheran Preschool and First Presbyterian Day School both received A-plus ratings in their most recent reviews. The Children’s Center got a B-plus rating, and Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Achievement School received a C rating.

The database shows Little Island has had 12 reported deficiencies in the facility in 2019, ranging from improper temperature and supervision to an unauthorized caregiver.

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A screenshot of the Little Island Preschool deficiency review from the South Carolina Division of Early Care and Education website. South Carolina Division of Early Care and Education website.

At other centers, parents can face wait lists for enrolling children.

Contacted Friday, representatives from St. Luke’s Preschool and Christ Lutheran Preschool said they both had active waiting lists.

“There are openings, but I’m filling up quickly,” said St. Luke’s executive director Janice Ring.

Christ Lutheran has openings for its school-year programs, but summer camp childcare is completely booked.

Since centers cannot generally estimate how long a child will need care there, it’s hard to tell prospective parents how long they’ll be on the wait list.

What’s next?

Little Island is scheduled to reopen under new leadership on July 15, according to a statement from the center.

Bernal has signed a new lease and has a new business license for the property, she said in an email to parents.

“Under the new management, we have plans to create a safe and fun environment for students to be themselves,” the statement said. “We are all looking forward to the changes to come and we thank our staff members and parents for all of their support.”

Browder said she’s sticking around to support Bernal.

“She’s an amazing person,” she said. “She has our support. We’re all still here standing behind her.”

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.