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Future funding for city child care programs may be cut

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FEBRUARY 05, 2012

The financial future of Berkeley’s public preschool and child care programs have been thrown into flux now that Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for the upcoming school year has been released.

Though the state’s proposed cuts presented in January will not be finalized until the budget revision in May, the Berkeley Unified School District is already looking for ways to remedy an expected $568,200 deficit resulting from a 10 percent reduction in state funding slated for preschool and child care programs for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Currently, the district has three preschool programs of different lengths — three hours, 6.5 hours and 9.5 hours — which serve a total of 449 preschoolers who have not yet entered school. Although the district’s need-based child care program — which serves 252 students of low-income families — called Berkeley’s Excellent Academic Road to Success, the BEARS program, will be affected, the main priority right now is preschool, according to Zachary Pless, district supervisor for extended learning programs.

“It’s really difficult to plan ahead,” Pless said. “Unfortunately we don’t know (anything) for certain, only what we have learned in the past.”

The three proposals the board members considered at their meeting Jan. 25 for dealing with the cuts to preschool classes ranged from keeping the status quo — by using the district’s general funds to make up for the funding discrepancy — to eliminating the three 9.5-hour classrooms.

“Based upon what we know now, our intentions are not to change the programs in any way that is within our control,” said board director Karen Hemphill. “Because we don’t know what the cuts are going to be, we can’t promise parents anything.”

Sandra Farmer, one of seven teachers at the district’s Franklin Preschool, said the cuts of the past few years have impacted the quality of care given to students. The longer, 9.5-hour programs are all filled, Farmer said, and although the six-hour programs are helpful, she said she thinks they do not serve the real needs of parents who work long hours.

“I’ve been a teacher for over 38 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening right now,” she said. “I’m just appalled that so much money is spent on everything else except for child development.”

In the scenario that the school district keeps all of its existing programs, Hemphill said the district has a financial “cushion” from saving money over the past years.

“The reason we (saved up money) was because sooner or later, we knew we were going to need it,” she said.

At the district meeting, the board indicated that keeping these programs is vital for parents and students, even if it is necessary to spend district reserves to keep them the way they are now, Pless said.

The board also discussed the newly proposed eligibility requirements for parent income that will exclude some parents whose income currently allows them to pay just a portion of the total cost for subsidized day care, according to Pless.

For UC Berkeley senior and parent Melissa Barker — whose eight-year-old daughter attends one of the school district’s child care programs at Emerson Elementary — the problem lies not with the schools but within the system. A low-income student who pays $50 per month for child care, Barker said paying child care after college is going to be a subject of worry in the near future, especially if the eligibility continues rising.

“As a parent in California, I have a lot of anxiety about my daughter’s education,” she said. “I can get all the education I want, but where is my daughter getting it from?”

According to Pless, of the initial 10 percent that was cut from these programs’ budgets last year, the state gave back about four percent, which Pless said can be used to fill the hole that could be left by next year’s cuts.

“The state has changed its mind,” he said. “The problem is that we’re the messenger, and sometimes the parents lose trust in us.”

Weiru Fang covers Berkeley communities.

FEBRUARY 05, 2012