Uploaded: Wednesday, August 26, 2009, 8:44 AM
Child care: Council leaning toward privatization
City may give parents chance to operate program
|Note: Menlo Park's City Council is scheduled to hold a study session on the future of Menlo Children's Center in the Civic Center complex Tuesday, Sept. 1. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the council chambers, in the Civic Center complex between Laurel and Alma streets.
By Sean Howell
As recently as 2001, Menlo Park looked poised to make a long-term commitment to running a child care program in the Civic Center complex, when voters approved a bond measure that would fund a new facility with a 50-year shelf life.
Now, for the second time in three years, a majority of City Council members are trying to find a way for the city to extricate itself from running the program for preschool-age children, without leaving parents in the lurch.
The revelation that council members don't see much of a future for the city's involvement in the program came through several interviews, after a months-long audit of the program's cost structure. City management estimated that restructuring the program could cut the city's annual subsidy from $384,000 to as little as $160,000.
But some council members say they're skeptical that the city will be able to effectively manage the program, and that they are reluctant to support any subsidy.
Even if the city could run the program without a loss, that doesn't necessarily mean it should continue to run it at all, said Mayor Heyward Robinson. He says the program has distracted the city from providing essential services, becoming a headache for city management and council members.
"There are only so many things we can focus on, and be good at," he said. "In the long run, it's a lot cleaner to focus our energy and resources on the things that only we can do."
Councilman John Boyle agreed. "Should the city be investing in becoming the best possible child care provider? I think that's better done by outside agencies," he said.
Mr. Robinson suggested that the city could continue to manage the self-sustaining after-school program in the Civic Center complex that serves about 100 children. It would also continue to operate the state-subsidized child care center in the Belle Haven neighborhood.
The apparent shift in ideology among members of the council majority perplexed Osnat Loewenthal, a parent with children at the center who has organized parents in recent months to help oversee the center's operation, and raise funds for the preschool program.
"Is this about money, or is this about values and ideology?" she asked. "This is really frustrating to us. Why are they singling out (the children's center)?"
If it's about money, she asked, why does the city heavily subsidize other programs, such as the gymnastics center? If it's about ideology, why doesn't it hand other ancillary programs over to private providers?
If the issue is incompetent management, others have asked on The Almanac's Town Square online forum, why should residents trust the city to run any program?
As an alternative to finding a for-profit company to run the center, some council members floated the possibility of parents themselves operating the program as a nonprofit, or a cooperative. Mayor Robinson and Councilman Andy Cohen noted that the city already donates facilities to provide child care and senior services in other parts of the city, and could do the same with the children's center.
"I think it's worth investigating," Mr. Cohen said. "People have come to expect (the service). ... I don't think we should just abandon these people to the free market, without trying to help them go in a better direction, if we can."
Ms. Loewenthal said she wouldn't rule out that possibility, but that for now, parents are focused on ensuring that the program runs as well as possible. After a lapse in management that saw the program lose money because it was undersubscribed, parents are keeping a close eye on the budget, and helping to advertise. They're planning a yard sale, and have begun dining out once a month at local restaurants as part of a program that gives a slice of the proceeds to the children's center.
Parents are trying to stress the fact that the children's center is intertwined with the community, Ms. Loewenthal said. She noted that the center is already beginning to be run cooperatively, with parents getting more involved and volunteering time.
Addressing the prospect of a national child care provider taking over the center, which she feels is a distinct possibility, she asked how residents would react to Barnes & Noble taking over Kepler's.
Some parents have said they feel the program was set up to fail when a previous council majority decided in 2003 to use bond money to reconfigure the old police station into a child care center, rather than build a new facility. In 2006, that council majority searched for a private operator to run the center -- only to conclude that the city should continue to manage it, when competitive bids failed to materialize.
Why should the city expect a different outcome this time?
For one, providers would not be competing with the city's program, and would be given more leeway to submit creative proposals, Mr. Boyle and Mr. Robinson said in separate interviews.
Mr. Boyle blamed protective unions and defensive parents for scaring away several potential bidders in 2006. "If you want someone to do something, you can't treat them like dirt and expect them to step up anyway," he said.
Ms. Loewenthal offered another reason for the dearth of bids, claiming that a major city engineering snafu during the renovation of the police station would render it nearly impossible for any provider to turn much of a profit.
Despite their leanings, neither Mr. Boyle nor Mr. Robinson ruled out the possibility of the city's continuing to manage the center. Both said they intend to support a recommendation by a city commission to give the city six months to restructure the program before making a decision on its future.
"There's a fear that (the child care program) will get replaced with something inferior, and we need to be sure we don't lose the value we do have," Mr. Boyle said. "If in fact we do make a change, we need to make sure that the change ends up being better."
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