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Long-running Gig Harbor preschool closes, unable to secure a location

Posted on October 5th, 2022 By:

The evening before their daughter Thea was to start her first day at Rainy Dayz Preschool, Jon and Cecily Novotney stopped by the school to make sure they knew the drop-off location. Looking in from outside the building, they were surprised to see the classrooms empty.

School was to start on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

The toys and furniture that were there the previous Thursday, when Jon had dropped off Thea’s tuition check, were gone. The playground area was bare.

“We originally thought, ‘That’s really weird. Maybe they’re just cleaning it really intensely for COVID.’ That was our first thought initially,” Novotney said. “And we said, OK, and then we went home sort of baffled, but we got an email that night stating there was going to be outdoor school for the next two weeks.”

School without a home

According to Novotney, the email from the school mentioned a dispute with the landlord of the property on Jahn Avenue in Gig Harbor where Rainy Dayz had operated for years. The email said there were plans to secure a temporary location.

Thea enjoyed the outdoor preschool held at a local park. In late September, Rainy Dayz reopened in a building on 56th Street.

The classrooms were small, Novotney said. But “there was always fun stuff on the walls and the teachers were always there to smile and welcome you and say ‘hi.’ So we were, like, this is OK, a temporary fix.”

Rainy Dayz Preschool occupied this building at on 56th Street in late 2021 and early 2022. It planned to move to a Soundview Avenue address in February 2022, but it never opened there. Vince Dice

Families await refunds

The school planned to move to a new permanent location on Soundview Avenue in February, following winter break. But that never happened.

Rainy Dayz was a well-established Gig Harbor preschool that through the years served hundreds of children, including a neuro-diverse population of students with special needs. Yet it ceased operations as of the 2022-23 school year.

Court documents indicate the reason for the abrupt closure on Jahn Avenue was an eviction. Novotney and other parents say they’re still trying to get tuition refunds — both for months last year when the school didn’t operate and for 2022-23 tuition they paid in advance.

Novotney and his wife are owed $6,854, he said. Another couple, Nick and Megan Schoenfelder, with three small children, say they’re out more than $13,000.

Who speaks for the preschool?

Gig Harbor Now reached out to individuals listed on documents as representatives of the preschool with questions on the closure. Most former officers and school directors either could not be reached or declined to respond.

The exception is Judy Pagni. She identifies herself in court documents related to the eviction as “volunteer board president of Rainy Dayz Preschool.”

Pagni is named as an officer and contact person for the school on the Washington Secretary of State’s website, which lists Rainy Dayz as “involuntarily closed.” Her name also appears as the primary contact on tax filings, the last of which was submitted in 2018, according to the website Guidestar, which tracks information on nonprofits.

“I am no longer a member of the board of directors or have any official capacity other than was a volunteer for Rainy Dayz,” Pagni said Sunday in an emailed response to Gig Harbor Now. “I resigned from the board in November 2018. My name should have been removed by the former board president at that time and it was not done.”

Pagni said she was unable to answer questions about the preschool’s closure.

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“I am not authorized to speak on behalf of the organization,” she said. “Consequently, I am unable to respond to your inquiries.”

Pagni’s personal attorney made a similar statement, saying he does not represent Rainy Dayz.

Positive reviews from parents

Rainy Dayz Preschool appears to have a solid reputation in the community. Parents unhappy about the refund situation had nothing but good things to say about the programing and the staff.

A search for online reviews turns up no negatives. Several are similar in tone to this: “Rainy Dayz has been an amazing preschool for our little one! The staff is so loving, the families are down to earth and genuine. The curriculum is a perfect blend of challenge, interest and creativity. Every child belongs and is cherished.”

Rainy Dayz Preschool was established as a nonprofit in 2014, according to the Secretary of State filing. But the preschool’s history goes back even farther, according to an email shared with Gig Harbor Now by a Rainy Dayz parent, dated March 7, 2022, and signed “Judy Rutzen Pagni, Board President & Founder.”

A ‘leap of faith’

Pagni’s email to families says Rainy Dayz has been in the community since 2004. Formerly a privately owned preschool, Rainy Dayz “provided an opportunity for any child to learn without any preconceived notions.”

The school was welcoming to students with special needs, according to Pagni. Rainy Dayz “took them with open arms,” working alongside specialists and supporting families.

When the former owners planned to close the school, a group of parents, including Pagni, spearheaded a campaign to keep Rainy Dayz’ doors open by turning it into a nonprofit. “We took a leap of faith,” Pagni wrote.

According to the Secretary of State’s filing that details the nonprofit’s revenue and expenses since 2014, their budget had more than doubled by 2018. The increase indicates a growth in enrollment during that period.

Preschool evicted

Owners of the Jahn Avenue property known as Gateway Point Business Park, where Rainy Dayz leased space since 2014, claim in Pierce County court documents that rent on the space had not been paid in a timely manner “since 2020.”

On June 22, 2021, RH Gateway Pointe Associates LLC served Rainy Days with a five-day notice of default, giving them five days to pay back rent or vacate the premises.

Rainy Dayz failed to pay the full amount by the deadline, the claim states. Court documents include a “Surrender Letter” dated July 1, 2021, and signed by Pagni as “board president for the 2020-21 school year.” The letter agreed that Rainy Dayz would vacate the property.

A default judgement against Rainy Dayz was filed Aug. 13, 2021, in Pierce County Superior Court. Gateway Pointe claimed back rent totaling $84,997 plus interest, penalties and attorney’s fees, bringing the total default amount to $105,735.

The court granted an order for eviction. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office served Rainy Dayz with an eviction notice on Aug. 18. The eviction was carried out by Monday, Sept. 13, the day Novotney said school was to have started.

Katie Comstock, attorney for RH Gateway Pointe Associates LLC, declined to comment.

COVID takes a toll

The COVID-19 pandemic took a brutal toll on early childhood education centers. In spring 2020, more than 1,200 Washington State-licensed childcare centers closed, faced with dwindling enrollment, extra cleaning protocols, mandated smaller class sizes and erratic operations due to outbreaks and quarantines.

The state doesn’t license or regulate preschools like Rainy Dayz that operate four hours or fewer per day, according to Jason Wettstein of the Department of Children, Youth & Families. So, there’s no way to know how many went under.

Pagni submitted to the court a plea to stay the eviction given a number of extenuating circumstances. One was that she had been in treatment for cancer, which delayed her response to court notifications.

“It goes without saying that COVID has significantly impacted our community, and while we do agree there is (sic) amount owed to the other party, we disagree on the amount significantly,” she wrote. “The majority of the past-due rent is from when there was a closure from March 2020 through September during the mandated shut-down.”

Claims of flooding in building

Pagni and former preschool director Amanda Delaire also provided written testimony to the court that flooding in the building had put a financial and logistical strain on Rainy Dayz.

Delaire described “flooding and subsequent repair of the building; the cause of which was never explained to us. The repairs went on for months and there has been a lack of support from the landlords in addressing these facility issues. Since I have worked at Rainy Dayz, it’s been flooded three separate times for unknown reasons.”

Rainy Dayz Preschool operated out of this building on Jahn Avenue from 2014 until being evicted in late summer of 2021.

Ruined toys, furniture and equipment needed replacing, Delaire said. She also reported “one of the facility’s HVAC units leaked and dripped buckets of water into one of the classrooms. This leak caused a loss of use to a significant portion of our lease.”

Pagni said the flooding delayed Rainy Dayz’ opening for the 2020-21 school year.

“This is the seventh flood we have faced while renting the property,” she said.

The lease agreement, included in court documents, shows that leaking in the building apparently existed back as far as 2017. Rainy Dayz expanded its lease space that year, and the lease states that the tenant was to take care of sealing the “roof penetration.” There was also a “tenant improvement allowance” of up to $30,000 for “construction expenses to the expansion space.” What’s not clear is whether that would have covered the roof leaks.

The 2017 lease amendment also included a new $90 per month fee the preschool was to pay in exchange for the landlord taking responsibility for all “maintenance, repairs and replacement” of HVAC equipment over the term of the lease.

A plea for leniency amid turmoil

Delaire’s written testimony Sept. 2, 2021, supporting Pagni’s (unsuccessful) request for a stay of eviction indicates there was a change in leadership during the pandemic.

“Judy and I have worked hard to get Rainy Dayz Preschool revived and back up and running again. The previous management was forced to close in March of 2020 due to the COVID pandemic,” wrote Delaire, formerly a teacher before taking on the director’s role.

The preschool had 10 employees, all women, and served about 50 families, she noted.

“To the best of our ability, Rainy Dayz has worked to keep this small business going through the rough times of a pandemic. We have worked in good faith with the landlord, parents and employees to do the fair and correct things to keep this endeavor running. We are doing everything we can to help families and employees in our community. Please support us.”

Move to new space delayed

Emails to parents shared with Gig Harbor Now indicated that Rainy Dayz would move from the temporary space to a permanent home on Soundview Drive in late February 2022. A sneak peek walk-though was planned. But on Feb. 23, Delaire reported “a couple of hiccups with moving in” that she blamed on “a couple of miscommunications” and a broker on vacation.

The next day, she wrote, “Unfortunately, we will not be able to do a walk-through tomorrow as planned. We ran into some issues with our leasing agent, and unfortunately, had to get our lawyer involved.”

On Feb. 28, Delaire reported another delay over “disputes all day” with the building’s owner.

“I am asking for grace for one more day,” Delaire said in her email. “I know I am probably pushing it with some parents, but we are doing our very best, if we had someplace else to go, we’d do it.”

The preschool offered outdoor classes and field trips to the library to fill the gap. But parents struggled to find replacement childcare.

On March 1, Pagni said Rainy Dayz had “elected not to do business” with the building’s owners, Donkey Creek Holdings LLC, and leasing agent. She claimed Rainy Dayz’ deposit checks had been “misplaced.”

A representative of Donkey Creek Holdings LLC declined to comment.

Teachers’ wages stalled

Shortly after that, Pagni and Delaire announced via email “wonderful news.” They said Rainy Dayz was working with “a well-established community entity” on a partnership that would allow them to lease the space on Soundview Drive after all.

On March 12, families were told of a “school pause,” as the lease space still hadn’t been secured. On March 17, Delaire told families, “I hate writing this, because I know for some of you all this sounds like excuses and I understand. Our community group whom we are supposed to be partnering with is stalling and not responding to us as they should be.”

The identity of the community group was not mentioned.

Meanwhile, teachers had been struggling for more than a year with job insecurity resulting from COVID and then the loss of a permanent home. Ella Christiansen, a teacher who left Rainy Dayz in April for a new school, said payment was sometimes delayed or checks bounced starting in 2020.

In late March 2022, Christiansen was still waiting for past-due wages, plus the 15 hours she worked in March, a total of $1,097.

She has since been paid all wages owed, but there was other fallout.

When Christiansen applied in April for unemployment, she learned that Rainy Dayz had submitted inaccurate W2 information to the IRS which had delayed two years’ worth of her tax refunds. Delaire sent a letter to the IRS correcting that situation. Christiansen has received her 2020 refund but is still waiting on her 2021 return, “which would definitely help my family,” she said.

Her application for unemployment to cover lost wages in 2021 and 2022 was also delayed because of the inaccurate W2s. It is now being processed.

Christiansen says Rainy Dayz has “ghosted” her since mid-April.

The GuideStar page for Rainy Dayz Preschool indicates that the nonprofit did not file necessary IRS forms for three consecutive years. GuideStar provides publicly available information on nonprofit organizations.

Just radio silence

In early April, after some parents complained of emails bouncing back, Ashley McCarty, a Rainy Dayz parent, came on board as a volunteer in charge of communications. On April 3, McCarty forwarded an email from Pagni saying, “Rainy Dayz is not closing its doors.” The email stated that families would receive refunds for tuition.

On April 26, Rainy Dayz told parents that claims of fraud by some had put a hold on its assets, delaying refunds.

By late May, families heard from Pagni via McCarty that Rainy Dayz planned to issue refunds in early to mid-June.

“We are very aware of how frustrating this has been on our families, and while this has been out of our control, I am personally sorry, for the entire situation,” Pagni wrote.

A Zoom meeting for parents was held in early June. Later that month, some parents were still waiting for refunds, according to an email thread. Communication from Rainy Dayz eventually just stopped, according to Novotney and the Schoenfelders.

“Yeah, so we sent multiple follow ups and said, ‘You owe us this amount,’” Megan Schoenfelder said. “We broke it down, and, yeah, just radio silence now.”

“They just disappeared into the night is what it felt like,” her husband Nick said.

Police decline investigation

Novotney recently made a report to the Gig Harbor Police Department and the state Attorney General’s office.

Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey said there’s not enough evidence at this time to suggest a fraudulent scheme or pattern of behavior that would meet his department’s threshold to investigate.

“It’s not yet a criminal case,” Busey said on Monday. “And so, we’ve suggested that the parents who are out the money pursue a civil remedy first and/or make a complaint to the Attorney General.”

The AG’s Consumer Protection Division is responding to Novotney’s complaint through its “informal complaint resolution process.”

“Our office acts as a neutral party to facilitate communication between consumers and businesses to assist in resolving the complaint,” representative Andrew Wu told Novotney.

The process takes four to six weeks and depends on the voluntary participation of both parties. Laws prohibit the AG’s office from giving legal advice to or representing either party.

Wu said his office is open to receiving additional information on the complaint. Emails to [email protected] should include the reference number 626614.