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May 13, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, May 13, 2005

Child care center may be DOA Child care center may be DOA (May 13, 2005)

Project's future in doubt as council splits on funding decision

By Jon Wiener

The city may not get into the child care business after all.

The controversial child care center planned for Rengstorff Park may have suffered a death blow at a city council study session Tuesday. Though its fate was not decided, the future of the $3.5 million proposal is anything but assured.

What was supposed to be a discussion of how to cover a funding shortfall turned into a debate over the center's very existence. Council members split evenly, with three in favor and three opposed to the project. The seventh council member, Nick Galiotto, said he had serious concerns about the project and asked staff members to explain why the center would provide only a handful of spaces for low-income residents. Galiotto said he does not plan to make a decision until those questions are answered and the funding strategy returns to the council for a formal vote. "I want to see it when it comes back," Galiotto told the Voice. "I want to know who we're really helping."

Plans for a city-backed child care center began eight years ago, but started moving ahead in earnest last December, when the council voted 5-2 (with Galiotto casting a surprise yes vote) to apply for a Packard Foundation grant to help pay for construction. Advocates point to studies showing that the city has 1,400 more children than available child care spaces and that those children who get professional care do better in school. The proposed center could serve about 100 children. Several Spanish-speaking residents of the neighborhood around the park came out to speak about the need for more affordable child care. Olga Melo, a housecleaner who moved from Mexico four years ago, cried as she told the council about her efforts to find child care for her 4-year-old son. "What we earn in two weeks, we have to pay in one week just to have someone take care of our children," she said. "Please, open your hearts and think about our children." Mayor Matt Neely, a strong advocate of the city providing child care services, said Melo's story is typical. "Many families have to face that difficult decision," said Neely, "'Do I go get work, or do I stay home and take care of my child?'"

But opponents argued that the project will not serve a low-income population, with slots costing as much as a thousand dollars a month. The proposal by Children's Creative Learning Centers includes $50,000 in total annual subsidies, which would likely fall far short of the city's goal of subsidizing 30 or more spots.

A better alternative, said council member Tom Means, would be to create a voucher system for low-income families, similar to what is done for Little League. Council member Greg Perry said that the loss of an acre of parkland was another hidden cost. "To take away the park in the low-income area of town to provide child care for the relatively wealthy, it's not fair," he said. Perry said that he had called some competing centers nearby and found that they offered much lower prices and had spaces available. The operator of one such center, Mohammad Alkhattat of Hobbledehoy Montessori Preschool, showed up to voice his displeasure with the prospect of the city spending money to help a rival compete with existing centers. "If you ask the owners of the schools, all of them will tell you that they are operating far short of capacity," said Alkhattat. Funded in part by a $2.8 million loan from the Packard Foundation, the project would still leave the city on the hook for as much as $700,000 to pay for the rest of construction and $1.2 million in interest on the loan. Council member Matt Pear criticized the foundation for trying to influence the city's policy via a loan instead of simply donating the money, and warned that the city would bear the liability. Pear also said the project's backers were getting close to "cradle-to-grave socialism," hinting at an ideological tension that was noticeable throughout the entire five-hour council meeting. But council members Mike Kasperzak and Laura Macias joined Neely in supporting the plan, comparing the child care center to any other recreational facility in the city. "I think the offer before us is an opportunity," said Macias. "I absolutely advocate moving forward." The city would need to add a budget item to fund the center, meaning the council will likely take a final vote on the project within the next few weeks.
E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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