Future of Child Care Still Uncertain

Photo: Kindergarten students draw after school at LeConte Elementary School, where the low-income BEARS program was closed due to cuts.
Shirin Ghaffary/Photo
Kindergarten students draw after school at LeConte Elementary School, where the low-income BEARS program was closed due to cuts.

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Officials in the Berkeley Unified School District have described this year's proposed state budget cuts as "an exercise in torment," "not friendly to education" and "darn near criminal."

These cuts, however, may prove friendlier to the district than the California state budget impasse itself - the longest in state history - that lasted 99 days, ending Oct. 8.

In August, as the beginning of the school year approached and the state budget remained unapproved, districts had to decide how to preserve state-subsidized child care programs even while it remained unclear whether the final budget would account for them. Gov. Schwarzenegger's May budget revision would have removed child care funding for 220,000 kids statewide, according to Rachel Ehlers, principal fiscal and policy analyst with the California Legislative Analyst's Office.

While the state budget process dragged on, districts were forced to shrink the threatened programs to a size that could be funded with their cash reserves. The Berkeley Unified School District, for example, cut its child care program for low-income families - Berkeley's Excellent Academic Road to Success - by 75 percent at the beginning of the school year, dropping the number of students served from 300 to 70 and forcing the district to lay off 10 teachers and four instructional assistants who worked within the program.

The final budget as approved Oct. 8 should presumably allow the district to rehire the teachers it let go. But if the families pushed out of the BEARS program - which is free for parents whose income level is 40 percent below the state median income - do not want to return in the middle of the year, the district may not be able to rehire everyone, district officials said.

Because state child care funding is awarded through a contract requiring districts to enroll a certain number of students in their programs, the district may not be able to reach designated levels and rehire teachers it was forced to lay off.

Zachary Pless, district supervisor for extended learning programs, said he is fearful the disruption caused by the budget impasse may have substantial effects on rebuilding BEARS but that closing it was the only option when the promise of state funding was uncertain.

"We couldn't keep all the doors open - we simply couldn't," he said. "We didn't have all the money to do it."

He said the district is now asking families who no longer use BEARS if they want to return to the program in the hopes of reopening classrooms beginning Nov. 1.

"It depends a lot on the families," Pless said. "Some of them might be really happy where they are, or they may be desperate to come back."

Most of the 230 students BEARS could no longer support were absorbed into the district's other after-school child care program, which is not subsidized by the state.

Families pay a fee based on monthly income levels - about $50 a month for a BEARS-qualified family - to use the alternate program, according to Pless, so many of those families would probably want to switch back to BEARS to get rid of the added expense.

At LeConte Elementary School - one of the five school sites where the BEARS program was closed - 43 students were displaced and joined the district's unsubsidized after-school program, according to Charity DaMarto, after-school coordinator for the school. She said the BEARS families are satisfied with the change but may be willing to switch back.

"The BEARS program families would want to go back because (only BEARS offers care during) spring break, winter break and summer break - it's really a struggle for families otherwise," DaMarto said. "That will be the decision-maker."

The district will then rehire teachers depending on how many students return to the BEARS program.

Although some teachers will be rehired, they may not get the same position in the same program, according to Cathy Campbell, president of Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

"If the BEARS program is expanded from its current really shrunken form ... it might actually be a current preschool teacher that's next on the seniority list," she said.

The Oakland Unified School District faces similar challenges in reconstructing its low-income child care program following cuts made at seven school sites.

"The shuffling around of students has created less demand for enrollment, so it's going to be significantly more challenging to get all the money we could receive," said Troy Flint, spokesperson for the Oakland district. "While our eligibility for funding has been fully restored, it's not clear if we will receive all those funds."

Flint said the district is looking to rehire the teachers that were laid off, but it is not a "lock-solid guarantee" because the district may not be able to enroll as many students as it had before the budget crisis.

"I'm reasonably confident we will be able to restore (the programs), but I don't think it's going to occur as quickly as anyone would like," he said.


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead local schools reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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