The damaged and leaky ceiling in one of Beth Ami's preschool classrooms on March 23. According to the former staffer who took the photo, it has looked like this since Jan. 9.
The damaged and leaky ceiling in one of Beth Ami's preschool classrooms on March 23. According to the former staffer who took the photo, it has looked like this since Jan. 9.

Mass resignations and health concerns led to Beth Ami preschool closure, parents and staff say

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A dire situation that developed this winter at Congregation Beth Ami’s Community Nursery School had 20 preschoolers and seven employees navigating around buckets filled with water dripping from a leaking roof — and facing potential exposure to mold, according to parents and staff, as well as publicly available documents.

The synagogue’s president announced last month that storm damage was the reason for the Santa Rosa preschool’s abrupt closure on April 5 after more than 40 years in operation. However, four families and three employees interviewed by J. said the synagogue’s leaders allowed health and safety problems to persist, which led the entire staff to resign and the preschool to close.

Additionally, rat feces were found this winter in between cabinets of one closed classroom and in the ceiling of another classroom in use, according to two staff members and confirmed by Barb McGee, CBA president.

With the school’s closure indefinite, families have been left to find new accommodations for their children two months before the summer break.

McGee said puddles of water were first observed on Jan. 9 in four of the preschool’s five classrooms. Four days later, on Jan. 13, a contractor removed heavy branches, leaves and water from the roof and used a sealant to patch areas where water was seeping through, according to a service receipt that McGee provided to J.

Caitlin Azhderian, whose 4-year-old son had been enrolled at the preschool for two years, recalled dropping him off in January and noticing a bucket in his classroom collecting water leaking from the ceiling. As someone who previously worked in early childhood education herself, she was concerned the preschool could be violating state licensing requirements.
“It seemed like a bit of a liability,” she said.

Another parent, Vladi Bender, said the ceiling in her 3-year-old son’s classroom leaked for months.

“I remember looking up and being like, ‘Oh, this is still happening,’” she said, and spoke to a teacher about it.

As the winter’s torrential rains continued, a Feb. 21 letter from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) notified McGee that it was investigating an anonymous complaint from a preschool employee, who claimed that the “employer failed to ensure to address issue with leaking roof that is now creating a mold hazard for up to 7 employees and students.”

The letter, signed by Cal/OSHA district manager Kathy Lynn Garner and seen by J., directed McGee to investigate the mold complaint and respond in writing to the state agency within 14 days, detailing whether the alleged conditions exist and, if so, the steps the preschool would take to correct them, along with an estimated date for completion.

On March 9, a different state agency visited the preschool, but this agency was one the board had invited some months earlier to examine the space for a possible expansion.

They just dragged their feet. The school just kept getting wetter, and worse.

Glenn Ouye, a state Department of Social Services licensing program analyst, came to measure classrooms and assess their suitability for younger children. He toured all five classrooms, including three that weren’t in use due to puddles and damage, a school employee told J.

Ouye wrote a report that day, detailing water stains on classroom ceilings, water leaking from ceilings and water dripping from an HVAC duct.

“Interview with [preschool] director indicated that the water leaks have been ongoing since January 2023,” according to the report. “Left unrepaired for over a month poses a potential health and safety risk to the children in care due to the development of black mold,” it reads.

Ouye issued a Type B violation, giving the preschool until March 23 to test for mold and complete the repairs.

In response to both agencies, McGee brought in an air-quality specialist to test for mold in the classrooms on March 21, according to an email she sent to preschool families. McGee wrote that the inspection found no evidence of mold, though she did not include a copy of the results.

McGee told J. that she sent the inspection results to Cal/OSHA, which she said satisfied the agency’s request.

Joe Wolf, whose 4-year-old son was enrolled at Beth Ami’s preschool this year, said McGee repeatedly told preschool teachers that repairs were imminent once the rain let up.

“They just dragged their feet,” he said of McGee and the board. “The school just kept getting wetter, and worse.”

On March 23, all of the school staff — six teachers and the preschool director — decided as a group to resign, stating they had lost trust in the synagogue board and felt the board had mismanaged the situation. Two teachers left that day, and the rest agreed to remain until April 5.

“[It was] just the lack of respect, and lack of what I thought was responsiveness to the situation in a timely manner,” said Ellen Gordon, a preschool teacher at Beth Ami since 2017. She resigned on March 23.

“It was devastating,” Gordon said of her decision to leave before the end of the school year. It was her final year of teaching before retiring after 22 years.

Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa. (File photo)
Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa. (File photo)

The other two staff members interviewed by J. asked to remain anonymous, but they both echoed Gordon’s reasons for resigning.

On March 24, the day after the staff’s startling decision, McGee emailed the congregation, saying that April 5 would be the preschool’s last day in operation, citing rain damage as the reason for its closure.

“We cannot continue operating the school until there is an extended period of dry weather so that permanent fixes can be made,” McGee wrote.

Jonathan Bender, whose 3-year-old son had attended since last summer, said his family has been “quite devastated” about the closure. “We were completely in love with this school and all the teachers.”

Azhderian made similar remarks. “It’s incredibly sad to see the program unravel with the understanding that it didn’t need to be this way,” she said.

With two weeks’ notice, parents said they scrambled to find spots at local preschools, with some saying they would need to take time off work to care for their children while they waited for an opening.

The loss of Santa Rosa’s oldest Jewish preschool, parents said, was particularly upsetting.

Though Azhderian’s family is not Jewish, she also sent her older son to the Beth Ami preschool from 2017 to 2019 and had even been a student there herself in the early 1980s, shortly after its 1979 founding. The Jewish environment and education were meaningful for all of them, she said.

She recounted something her son, now in second grade, told her recently. “Just the other day, he said, ‘I had a wonderful dream, Mom,’ and I said, ‘Well, what was your dream?’ And he said, ‘I was at school, having Shabbat,’” Azhderian said.

The Benders, an interfaith couple, said their son always looked forward to making mini challahs with his class on Fridays and enjoyed participating in the rituals of Shabbat.

“They would educate about the holidays,” Jonathan Bender said, noting that his son enjoyed the synagogue sukkah and the preschool’s Purim activities. “It has really enriched him,” he said, “and we’re very dismayed about not having that moving forward.”

Jew,  Jewish,  J. The Jewish News of Northern California
Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.