We believe the answer is yes, although the City Council should do everything it can to reduce the subsidy that now goes to its preschool and toddler child care program. According to figures released last week, the city will pay $206,421 from its general fund in the current fiscal year to cover the gap between the cost to run the center, and fees received from parents. Including overhead, the city says the final cost is $337,111 — a hefty subsidy, but one that could shrink considerably if parents pay more and the city reduces expenses. It would be much more palatable if fees could pay for 85 to 90 percent of the program's costs (not including overhead). Community Services Director Barbara George maintains it will be possible to get there through increased efficiency and several cost-cutting measures, though council members are skeptical.
Currently, only the Burgess preschool child care program, which serves 56 children, is running a deficit. The popular after-school programs are paying their own way, and thus are not a drag on city finances. But it won't be easy for the city to come close to break-even for the child care program, especially if that would require a steep rate hike for parents who say they are paying enough already. Some told The Almanac that they believe the city should be willing to pay a share of childcare costs in order to keep young families in the city. Higher fee increases could force them to leave, one mother said.
City staff is proposing a six percent fee increase for the school year beginning in the fall, which would follow a five percent jump last January. The increase would help, and if added to other measures like making sure all classes are filled to capacity, could make a sizeable dent in costs.
Another possibility suggested by council members would be to implement a sliding scale to assess fees on a more equitable basis. But any decision on where to set the bar is sure to be met with controversy, and city officials say such a system would be complicated to implement. Virtually all Menlo Park families that use the Burgess center would not qualify under the county's sliding scale system that is used in Belle Haven, where many families pay a reduced rate.
According to a staff report compiled for a recent council meeting, the Menlo Children's Center rate for full-time preschool care is $1,189 per month, slightly lower than the $1,256 average of fees charged at six other centers in San Carlos and Palo Alto. Although the staff report does not say if care in the other cities is subsidized, it does indicate that Menlo Park's rates have room to increase about 5 to 6 percent to equal the average of the six other centers. (Care for the six toddlers in the Menlo Park children's center have room to increase by about 10 to 11 percent, according to the staff report.)
With a rate increase of eight or nine percent, the city could bring the toddler and preschool program closer to break-even. And if city staff can make the center more efficient and find ways to cut costs, as they claim, that might be enough to enable the program to continue with a small subsidy from the city.
Many nearby communities have other systems in place to provide child care that is not funded by the city. Menlo Park has taken a different path, but for many years, it has helped hundreds of young families be able to live and work in Menlo Park, and to raise their children here. It would be a shame for this supportive program to end now, especially if ways can be found to improve its financial footing.