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Rosie Watches Kids; State Watches Rosie

Sun., Feb. 15, 1998

Alexis Storms has the social calendar of a debutante.

Last week, it included ice skating, karate and pizza on Friday. Next week, the blonde 4-year-old hits the hot tub and takes a field trip to the post office via a limousine.

Such is a week at Rosie’s Romper Room, a South Hill preschool praised by working parents as an inexpensive and creative haven.

Alexis, as she’s leaving for the day, rushes to hug owner Rosie Zaring.

But there are no hugs from state child-care watchdogs.

The state revoked Zaring’s day care license in 1991 - a rare action usually taken only when children are at risk.

Today, she’s under investigation again by state regulators who are trying to determine if the preschool she opened after losing her license is really an illegal day-care center.

Zaring remains defiant, confident she’s following the law.

“I’m prepared for ‘em, I’m ready for ‘em,” said Zaring, who says she spent $20,000 fighting her license revocation.

“I want them to be our friends, not our enemies. … If I have to, I’ll fight them again. This is my life. I love it. I’ll hock the house to do it again.”

Her investigative file is thick as a phone book.

Investigators warned Zaring in 1975 that another overcrowding violation would result in license revocation. In 1987, 32 children were found, more than triple her legal capacity of 10, and Zaring was again warned.

During a surprise inspection in 1991, she and her staff stashed two babies in a storage closet and shuffled others out the back door - an attempt to keep regulators from detecting the 25 kids in her care, according to state records.

That visit cost her the license.

Zaring said the inspection came during an emergency - Firestorm, when 50-mph winds downed power lines and fanned wildfires. The clogged highways delayed parents from picking up their kids.

She admits that she and her staff, already on edge because of the natural disaster, panicked when the inspectors showed up.

Administrative Law Judge Clayton Harrington, reviewing Zaring’s history of infractions, concluded: “When considered together, these actions demonstrate that (Zaring) has little regard for the law and … lacks the requisite good character to be a day-care provider.”

Despite that ruling, a loophole in child-care laws - which state authorities helped Zaring understand - allowed her months later to convert her business into a preschool.

The state doesn’t require a license or criminal background checks and site inspections to run a preschool, accepting unlimited numbers of kids.

For Zaring, the switch required little more than a name change.

The place has been full ever since. Tucked in the basement of Zaring’s brown A-frame home at 1918 S. Markwell Court, the walls are full of alphabet and color charts.

Parents say the 51-year-old Zaring’s open-door policy, hands-on style and 31 years of experience make her an ideal caregiver.

More than 100 supporters protested her license revocation. Parents with kids in her preschool like the fact that she doesn’t charge them for picking up kids late. They also like her standing offer to look after kids on weekends and at night.

Her $80-a-week rates are about half those charged by some licensed centers.

“She cares about the kids, she teaches the kids, she ain’t just there to baby-sit,” said Alfred Cochran, father of a 6-year-old boy in Zaring’s care. “She’s in it for the rewards and not the money.”

John Orosco pulled Gage, 6, out of a licensed center three years ago after seeing a female employee hitting children. He brought his son to Zaring, who gave him peace of mind.

“Just because the state doesn’t have their stamp (of approval) on it doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said.

But Zaring’s success at converting to a preschool angers licensed providers, who complain to the state that Rosie’s Romper Room is a thinly disguised day care.

If they have to follow extensive and costly state regulations, they ask, why shouldn’t Zaring?

“Unlicensed providers can slam the door in licensers’ faces; we can’t even lock our doors because of fire codes,” said Martha Lehman, a provider heading a Spokane County committee that turns in illegal daycare centers.

Regulators with the state Office of Child Care Policy are now checking out new complaints against Zaring.

One accuses her of caring for an 8-year-old. Another claims she’s caring for kids for more than four hours at a time.

Neither allegation is true, said Zaring.

Preschool students must be between 30 and 60 months old, and can remain in school for just four hours at a time, said Tim Nelson, state licensing supervisor in Spokane.

Running an illegal child-care could result in civil fines or misdemeanor charges. Criminal charges are rarely pressed. Instead, the state tries to persuade unlicensed centers to apply for a permit, Nelson said.

With Zaring, “I feel like we’re between a rock and a hard place,” Nelson said.

“We have parents who like what she’s doing, and we have people who are asking us to enforce the law. The law is there to protect kids.

“Maybe she’s been lucky, maybe she’s been providing adequate supervision,” Nelson said. “That’s normally the thing parents don’t complain about until someone gets hurt.”

No complaints of abuse or neglect have been lodged against Zaring.

She said losing the child-care license was the best thing that ever happened to her.

Regulations were simple when she was first licensed in 1967. Look after as many kids as you want, she was told.

By the time she lost her license, Zaring complained that the state was telling her how to run every aspect of her business.

As a preschool, she can take in as many kids as she wants. Her current enrollment: 40 kids a day, split in two four-hour sessions.

Avoiding one of the few state rules governing preschools - the four-hour limit, Zaring swaps children with her daughter, Deena Olson, who runs a fitness-oriented preschool next door.

Olson was denied a child-care license in 1991, after authorities found her running an unlicensed facility.

On an average day at Rosie’s Romper Room, 20 kids spend the morning working on computers and ABCs. In the afternoon, the kids walk over to Olson’s house for gymnastics and “Mousersize.” Olson’s morning class is sent to Rosie’s to end the day.

Zaring’s flashiest new idea - carting her kids around in five limousines - would be a problem under state rules governing day cares. She rents out the vehicles in a side business called “A Touch of Class.”

“Why should I have just 10 kids when I can have this?” said Zaring, waving to a room full of kids.

While her income has nearly tripled since the change to a preschool, she said the extra profits are plowed back into the school, including the purchase of five new Macintosh computers.

Her transformation from provider to preschool teacher has made her something of a hero to people who’ve had run-ins with child-care regulators.

When they call, Zaring offers simple advice.

“Don’t call a lawyer. I did, and (the state) didn’t like that.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color) Graphic: Day-care center operating requirements


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