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What should Menlo Park do about child care?

City's management of child care program is causing headaches, but opinions diverge on what should be done.

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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.

Mismanaged?

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.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Arrrggghhh!
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Jun 1, 2009 at 4:03 pm

"We can't solve the problem." -- Rich Cline

Well, that doesn't bode well for any other service or program run by the city, now does it?

Of course you can solve the problem. The childcare center is a good program that's been through some recent upheavals, and clearly hasn't gotten any support from the Rec Dept.'s upper management.

I know for a fact that the communication between the town manager's office and the childcare center has been deplorable, with vital information not being given to the center's director.

Abolishing the childcare center isn't going to fix the problems with the city administration, and it's not going to eliminate the "overhead" costs attributed to fractions of the salary of the recreation director, etc.

Save the childcare center and fix city hall. If you can't manage that, then get the heck off of the city council.


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Posted by Diana
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 1, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Cline's comment struck me as odd too. If you recognize that a management problem is causing a program problem, shouldn't you focus on fixing the management problem? After all, the management problem is likely to adversely affect more than just one program in the city.


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Posted by interesting
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Disregard that there have been multiple failed attempts to reform city run child care by two different administrations in this city and three different councils. Just find a someone to blame and it all works out...



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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 1, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Don't quote Rich out of context. He is a good guy and I am glad he is on council (a thankless job, for sure!)

The parents who are begging the city to spend money on the MCC in 2009 are no less selfish than the parents who asked the city to take over the MCC 20+ years ago.

Twenty years. At least three different city managers. Many city councils. Dozens of teachers and more than a few directors. And the city's child care program has been an expensive failure, year after year after year. When you see how intractable a problem the MCC has been, and when you realize that there is no way the city can possibly compete with private, corporate, or family-run child care operations, well, it's time to pull the plug.

There are plenty of other child care options in Menlo Park and adjacent cities. The rest of us have all paid our own way, without handouts from the city, and so can this crop of MCC parents. The sooner they are weaned off their subsidies, the better.


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Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Interesting:
"Disregard that there have been multiple failed attempts to reform city run child care"

If by "reform," you mean give away city assets via privitization, you are correct.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jun 1, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Mom,

If the program has been such a "failure" over that long a time span, why has it garnered such strong, universal support from participating parents, who are paying a market rate for its services?


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Posted by West MP
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jun 2, 2009 at 7:53 am

We should not be be in the childcare business. I have 3 children and can not afford the center so have used privately provided which I can afford and is NOT subsidized. I did not have children so that the community of Menlo Park could pay to take care of them.

You are not talking about a childcare center for parents who earn a minimum wage. You are charging me a utility tax to pay for childcare for someone elses children and that is not right.

It should be a privately run center that is self sustaining not using utility tax dollars to the tune of $300,000 plus a year.


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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 2, 2009 at 8:52 am

Parents tend to like whatever program their kids are using -- if they don't, they switch! So parental approval is essentially meaningless.

Parents may feel that they are paying a "market rate" but in fact they are not covering the operating costs. The city needs to get out of the business because it can't operate the center in a cost-effective manner and because there are many private operators who can do so. Lather, rinse, repeat. Twenty years of this and how many millions of dollars in subsidies? Enough!


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Posted by Own Your Responsibility
a resident of Encinal School
on Jun 2, 2009 at 10:40 am

Here's a solution to getting the city of Menlo Park out of the childcare subsidy business:

-- Put the current MCC parents on notification that the program as they know it will end in August 2010.

-- The City of Menlo Park should contract to lease out the space MCC currently occupies to an entity who wants to start a new preschool in September 2010. The lease rate should be an amount of money such that the City of Menlo Park will make an appropriate profit, yet is an amount that is attractive to a prospective preschool tenant.

-- The City of Menlo Park, should be under NO obligation to subsidize the costs of childcare. The residents of Menlo Park should be under no delusion that the city owes them childcare, nor any kind of subsidy.

(And just so you understand my perspective - I have young kids. They went to preschool. We were at MCC for a time. I still feel that the City of Menlo Park does not owe me, nor anyone, a subsidy for childcare.)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by i Agree
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Jun 2, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Thank you "Own Your Responsibility", I could not have said that better myself. This is EXACTLY the plan we should follow, and we should consider this for every other service the city offers that is putting a drain on our budget!


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Posted by Joanna
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 2, 2009 at 1:00 pm

I would like to see a list of salaries and expenses that the program costs.


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Posted by Kelli
a resident of Laurel School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Menlo Park needs to get out of the business of childcare- especially since we are paying out more then we are taking in. Lease out the space to a privatized childcare center- we would make more of a profit on the building and not have all of the cost.

It is not the job of the city to tend to the children, it is the job of the parents. As a mother of 4 kids, 6 years old and under, we make it work without the MP Childcare center- other parents will too. Cut it off, its a leach.


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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jun 3, 2009 at 11:26 pm

Own Your, that is a great solution. Email Heyward and the band and clue them in.


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