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June 03, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, June 03, 2005

Child care center's last chance Child care center's last chance (June 03, 2005)

Decision on project's fate due Tuesday

By Jon Wiener

Both sides of the debate over a proposed child care center in Rengstorff Park are mobilizing ahead of Tuesday night's city council meeting, but the fate of the project is likely to come down to one central question: Does the city really face a child care shortage?

Most child care center owners will tell you the answer is no, and they appear to have some new ammunition to bolster their case -- a city staff report scheduled to be released Thursday has found that 14 of the 21 licensed child care centers in the city have some level of vacancy.

Several owners, and some city council members, are questioning the city's plans to get involved in what is for the most part a private industry. Mohammed Alkhattat, co-owner of Hobbledehoy Preschool, said that if the city does build the proposed 100-student center, it will force some operators out of business.

"If they give me their names, I can place all of them," said Alkhattat.

At first glance, the study spells trouble for child care advocates who have been pointing to the gap between classroom spaces and the total number of children in the city. Adding fuel to the fire, a county commission on child care said that vacancy rates at Mountain View centers are as high as 22 percent for some ages.

But, if you ask child care advocates, they will tell you that not all child care centers are created equal. Despite vacancies in many local preschools, Children's Creative Learning Centers -- the operator the city has selected to lease the building - has Mountain View residents on waiting lists to get into their centers in other cities.

According to youth services manager Nancy Vannenberg, who conducted a telephone survey of every operator in the city, several factors are behind the vacancy rates, including cost, hours of operation and whether the center has a religion-based curriculum.

The city's child care proposal has moved forward in fits and starts over a period of seven years. The concept finally won the council's support on a surprise 5-2 vote last December, with members opting to pursue a 1 percent loan to pay for the construction of the building. But several council members appeared to have second thoughts at a study session three weeks ago, as they faced questions about vacancy rates and the costs of spaces at the new center.

A final verdict is expected Tuesday, when the council decides whether to appropriate $1.9 million in construction costs as part of its capital improvement budget for the coming fiscal year.

Mayor Matt Neely, the leading vote-getter in the 2002 council election, vowed to make child-care a priority.

"I understand why providers are nervous about this taking away from their business," he said. But he added he doesn't want seven years of work to go to waste. "We can poke around at the problem, or we can take bold action."

Years of study and debate over the project has focused on the concept of a child care "gap," the discrepancy between the number of classroom spaces against the total number of kids 5 years and younger. Vannenberg took that a step farther, adding in the hundreds of spots at small, unlicensed centers and subtracting kids who have a parent who is not in the workforce.

Still, according to that math, there is a gap of about 400 spaces this year, and it will grow in the future. Not all parents are seeking child care for their kids, but there is pressure on the council to do something. Right now, the $3.5 million center is the only proposal on the table, though some council members have called for a voucher program or easing zoning restrictions on providers.

Neely said such proposals are good ideas, but are not likely to move forward if the center fails.

"We're not even offering grants to providers. We're not even doing zoning. We're doing nothing to help child care in this city," he said. "We seem to have forgotten all the work we've done the last seven years."

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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