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As Menlo Park works to cut its subsidy of the city-run child care center in the Civic Center complex, it's become clear to everyone involved that the program's management could be more efficient.
What that should mean for the program's future is now being hotly debated.
While parents and council members disagree on whether the preschool child care program is among the services the city should subsidize, both groups have pointed to sloppy management as the source of much of the consternation over the program.
Parents and city staff members argue that by making a few operational changes, the city could dramatically cut its subsidy of the preschool program. But several council members say they have lost faith in the city's ability to run the program.
Is the program mismanaged?
That's the case several parents made at a May 5 City Council meeting, protesting an increase in child care fees. Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, the lone council member to voice support for a continued hefty city subsidy of the program, said she had noticed the deterioration of the center's management firsthand. (Ms. Fergusson's children are enrolled in the city's after-school child care program, a fact that City Attorney Bill McClure says does not present a legal conflict of interest.)
"I think the benefit of this whole discussion is that there is a spotlight shining now on the management of the children's center, and, boy, we're gonna get to the bottom of this," she said. "But we're not to the bottom of it right now."
Parents pointed to the fact that, over the past three years, revenue taken in by the program has dwindled while fees have increased. They alleged that the program is undersubscribed, despite a waiting list of 67 children, and that the city has been lax in collecting fees.
Carol Augustine, the city's finance director, said that revenue at the preschool program has indeed decreased slightly: from $606,000 in the 2006-07 fiscal year, to a projected $574,000 in 2008-09. She blames stagnant revenue in part on the fact that, after a fee increase at the beginning of the 2006-07 fiscal year, the city held off on raising prices until January 2009, as it analyzed fees for city services.
Ms. George blames some of the program's "inefficiencies" on the departure of longtime director Adela Alvarado in late 2007, and the unexpected departure of Ms. Alvarado's successor in spring 2008.
In working to fill the 56 toddler, preschool, and early preschool slots, Natalya Jones, the program's current director, apparently didn't know that she should enroll full-time students who were on the waiting list before accepting lower-paying part-timers, Ms. George said.
In an interview, Ms. George attributed some of the confusion to the quick turnover in directors. She said she shared some of the responsibility, because she didn't realize that Ms. Jones didn't know she should accept full-timers first.
But even with only full-timers, the program as currently configured would still be filled only to 83 percent of capacity, up from its current 76 percent, according to a city analysis. That's because the city has to hold spots open to accommodate children as they graduate into upper age levels in the program.
Eliminating the costly toddler program and grouping 2-year-olds with preschool children would allow the program to reach 91 percent of capacity, Ms. George said -- a goal she maintains is within reach. Under that scenario, the community services department would recover all the internal costs of the program in the 2009-10 fiscal year, though the city would still be shelling out $160,000 to cover "extra-departmental," or overhead, costs. Included in overhead costs are charges for using and maintaining the facilities, and portions of salaries of staff members in other departments who devote time to the program, such as public works employees and city management.
According to the most recent estimates, the city's general operating fund will cover $384,000 of the program's cost in the current fiscal year, which includes the overhead costs.
Ms. George dismissed allegations that the city has been careless in collecting payment, saying it has gone after parents who don't pay on time, and that no parent has skated through without paying.
What's the answer?
While the city's "inefficient" management has led parents to argue that the program can thrive with a few adjustments, some council members see it differently.
Councilmen John Boyle and Rich Cline, members of a committee that in 2006 examined the issue of whether the city should continue to operate the center, noted that the city still hasn't solved the issues raised during that study.
"I'm starting to get tired," Mr. Cline said at the May 5 meeting. "I'm starting to feel like we can't solve the problem."
Mayor Heyward Robinson said he shared parents' frustration, but came to a different conclusion.
"The thing that kept going off in my head (when hearing parents' comments) is: All the more reason the city should not be in this business," he said at the May 5 meeting. "'Run this like a business.' That's what I heard tonight. ... I totally agree."
At that point in the meeting, a collective groan went up from parents in the council chambers. One of the parents who spoke at the meeting told The Almanac that parents felt they had been rhetorically trapped.
But some council members have said parents are trying to have it both ways -- lauding the program while castigating the management, opposing fee hikes while insisting that teachers' jobs remain unionized.
In June, a city commission is scheduled to make a recommendation to the council on whether the city should continue to run the program, or seek a private operator -- a search that bore no fruit in the 2006 drive to privatize the center.