THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Simple as ABC? Verify daycare center payments

"There were some things I didn't like," Barbara Beverly says, but nothing serious enough to stop her from enrolling her daughter, Hannah, at ABC Preschool for the past three years. When a slot at a daycare center two blocks from Beverly's job opened up, however, the benefits of moving Hannah clearly outweighed the drawbacks. 

Beverly put in the required two-week notice in early August, saying that August 18 would be Hannah's last day. On August 9, Beverly accompanied Hannah's class on a field trip, and asked about the $135 deposit she had paid when she enrolled Hannah in August 2003. (At the time, that was a week's tuition; the price has since gone up to $140.) 

She was surprised when the answer came that there would be no deposit return. The math gets so complicated here that I practically swooned while doing the research, but it comes down to this: Beverly claims her records show that in the course of her three years at ABC, she inadvertently paid for an extra week. Therefore, she says, ABC owes her $130 (i.e., the original $135 deposit minus $5). ABC, however,  claims they're even (except for the $5 not covered by the rate increase, which they aren't attempting to collect).

Beverly and I both work for the School of Education at UVA, where she's a senior fiscal technician and knows her way around a spreadsheet. To back up her claim, she went though her check registers from August 25, 2003 to August 4, 2006 and created a spreadsheet that listed 106 checks and three cash payments, in amounts that ranged from $35 (which were for the yearly fees due each August) to multi-week payments of $560. The vast majority, however, were for a single week's tuition. Her conclusion: She overpaid by $135. 

ABC owner Peggy Johnson stoutly disagrees, and says the school's records show that the deposit was applied to Hannah's final week, which is the school's usual practice. Neither side will budge, and meanwhile, other areas of contention have cropped up. 

Beverly, for instance, says that because there were three front-desk employees during Hannah's three years at the center, it's possible a check could have been misplaced. Johnson concedes there's been turnover in the position and explains this by saying that the two employees who didn't work out "didn't understand multitasking"; presumably, the current employee will do better. Even so, Johnson is adamant that support-staff turnover didn't affect the quality of ABC's recordkeeping. 

I asked Johnson about teacher turnover, which was one reason Beverly decided to move Hannah. Last month, for example, two weeks after Hannah moved to the four-year-old room, her teacher quit. This had been preceded, Beverly says, by other teacher comings and goings. Johnson claims Beverly exaggerates the turnover Hannah experienced, and charges that Beverly "tried to lure other parents away," which Beverly, in turn, denies. 

 "If I owe her, I'll pay her," Johnson told me. But short of sitting down with a mediator who will go over the two sets of records, I don't foresee the two sides agreeing on much of anything. 

If you have a child in daycare, let this be a cautionary tale. That's not to disparage daycare centers; rather, it simply illustrates how important recordkeeping is when you're issuing weekly checks and/or cash payments. It's easy to keep track of monthly payments for such things as car loans and rent– and tougher when you're making weekly payments, year in and year out.  

To avoid dissension when it's time to separate, protect yourself from the beginning by doing two things: Keep a separate record of daycare payments, and periodically– at least yearly, and preferably by the quarter– ask the school to verify that its records agree. 

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.