A kindergarten group accused of ousting a well-established preschool in Tin Shui Wai by outbidding it for its site admits signing up pupils before the new site is registered with the Education Bureau - but denies jumping the gun and breaching regulations.
The bureau will look into complaints from parents who say they paid to reserve a place at Zenith International Education Foundation's campus at Sherwood Court, Kingswood Villas.
By law, kindergarten operators must register their premises and undergo a number of health and safety checks before accepting pupils. Zenith will not be able to start that process until Topkids International Preschool closes.
Yannie Chau Man-yan, principal at Zenith's branch at Crestwood Court on the same estate, said that after Topkids announced its imminent closure on Monday, 160 parents rushed to her branch to apply for places.
Chau said the rush was unexpected, and that staff believed parents were applying to the existing branch. It therefore charged reservation fees of HK$660 for half-day classes and HK$1,150 for full-days. She said Zenith later asked each parent which branch they preferred, and would return fees to those who chose the new site.
"We definitely didn't jump the gun," said Chau.
Education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim said the bureau would follow up on the claims.
Zenith promised on Tuesday to admit all pupils from Topkids and charge no more than five per cent more than its rival did.
But parents fear they will struggle to afford Zenith's high miscellaneous fees. While the government does regulate the fees of the 77 per cent of kindergartens which participate in its voucher scheme, it has no control over miscellaneous fees.
Such fees were criticised in a report by government auditors last year: kindergartens which participated in the voucher scheme charged an average of HK$3,000 per child each year.
Zenith said it charge HK$3,000 per child twice a year for miscellaneous items; Topkids offered an 85 per cent discount on those charges.
The group's branches have also been accused of flouting regulations on when it collects miscellaneous fees. Such fees can be collected after May 1 in the year in which a child starts lessons. The group claimed parents paid fees early on their own initiative.
Topkids revealed on Monday that it had failed to secure a lease renewal from its landlord, Fortune Real Estate Trust, despite offering to almost double its rent of HK$260,000 a month. It will move out before the new school year starts in September. How much Zenith will pay for the site has not been revealed.
The news sparked concerns that kindergartens serving the local community in the troubled new town, one of the city's poorest areas, were being edged out in favour of those catering to children living on the mainland.
Mary Tong Siu-fun, president of the Hong Kong Kindergarten Association, said in a radio phone-in yesterday that despite intense competition, it was rare for an existing kindergarten to lose its own site to a rival.
"Competition is always here," Tong said. "But it used to happen with the opening of a new kindergarten in a new campus. What happens now is an unhealthy form of competition."