Judy Lee has already begun packing her boxes. Full of art supplies and Shel Silverstein books, the boxes sat neatly stacked near the wall of her spacious classroom at the Piedmont Avenue Early Childhood Development Center on Wednesday, a telltale sign of the center’s imminent closure.
After Friday, the doors will close indefinitely at the Piedmont center and seven other Childhood Development Centers that offer preschool, as well as summer and after school programs to some 900 Oakland children. The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is closing seven, of 31 total centers, because of a potential $13 million budget cut for early childhood education. The eighth center to be closed, Parker Childhood Development Center in the Eastmont neighborhood, is a victim of earlier budget cuts.
On top of the closures, all summer programs, and before and after school care for elementary school children will be cut throughout the district, and indeed, throughout the state.
In a desperate attempt to keep open the centers—among the few options for affordable childcare for many parents—some parents and teachers plan to hold class outside next week or even take over the centers, although the OUSD has nixed these plans because of liability and contract concerns.
At Piedmont, parents and staff seem to still be in shock from the announcement that came just two weeks ago. “It’s been very hard for parents, very hard for staff because it hit us, just, bam,” said Lee, slapping her hands together softly.
In the center’s small office, Dean Brown, the secretary, and Ricki Hannah, who runs the summer program for kindergarten through third grade aged children, chatted dejectedly about the closure.
“We’ve been told to pack our stuff, so we’re packing our stuff,” said Hannah.
“I’ve been getting so many calls from parents,” said Brown. “One parent said ‘You’re giving us two weeks notice like it was a job.’” The parent told Brown she had a job, and would have to scramble to find care for her children during work hours. “She just went off,” said Brown.
As the state struggles to close a $19 billion budget gap, OUSD’s Early Childhood Education Department, which runs the centers, faces a potential 73 percent reduction in state funding—$13 million of its total $18 million annual budget. The proposed cuts are part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s revised budget proposal, released in May. The cuts would come on top of $110 million that’s already being shaved from OUSD’s overall funding.
The state budget is now being hashed out in the legislature, and funding for the childcare centers could be restored in the final budget deal. But until a compromise is met—and some say that may not happen until after the November elections—the targeted centers are closing their doors indefinitely. “At this point it would take a Hail Mary to keep the centers open,” said Troy Flint, director of public relations for OUSD.
Flint said the district has explored a number of options for keeping the childcare centers open, but none are viable within the budget and timing constraints. Unlike the state government, which has no strict deadline for passing a budget and can issue IOUs, the school district had to submit its budget to the county before the beginning of the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
OUSD has managed to keep the childcare centers running until now by shifting funds from adult education. High ranking, non-unionized staff have also taken pay cuts and furlough days to help free up money for the programs, according to Flint.
Lee—who is one of two head teachers at the Piedmont center, and has been teaching there for 21 years—is one of 39 teachers who will be out of a job come Monday. Her job could be reinstated if funding is restored to the program, but she won’t know until the governor signs his name to the budget bill. In the meantime, she’s stuck in labor limbo.
“I have to decide, well, should I apply for a job or shouldn’t I? And if I do, I have to tell my boss, ‘Well, I might leave in a few months if my job reappears,’” she said. She and other teachers who have been laid off can substitute teach in the interim, which Lee said she would likely do. Other employees will be relocated to one of the district’s 23 remaining Childhood Development Centers.
For many parents whose children attend the centers, the closures mean a rushed search for childcare. Preschool age children will have the option of attending one of the 23 Early Childhood Development Centers that escaped the cuts. But summer school, and before and after school programs for elementary school age children have been cut completely from all centers.
Rose Baty, a medical assistant at Kaiser, has three elementary school age children who attend the Piedmont center, for both the summer program, and the before and after school programs that used to be offered during the school year.
“Right now, I seriously have no options,” said Baty, who usually drops off her children before going to work, and picks them up on her way home. “I’m asking my old neighbor to take care of them.” She hopes that plan will work for the rest of the summer, but when asked what she’ll do once school starts, she shrugged helplessly. “There’s no plans as of yet.”
Several miles away at the Manzanita Early Childhood Center—which is also scheduled to close on Friday—a group of some thirty parents and teachers were engaged in a desperate planning session to keep it and other centers from closing. The group Oakland Parents Together, which organized the meeting, is planning a “people’s takeover” of several of the centers come Monday, including Santa Fe in West Oakland, Manzanita in the Meadow Brook neighborhood, and Hintil Kuu Ka in the East Oakland hills. Highland Early Childhood Center, near the Oakland Coliseum, may also be included in the “takeover.”
“At any cost, we’re going to open those centers on Monday,” said Judith Namoki, education advocate for Oakland Parents Together. “We’re encouraging parents to keep bringing their kids to those centers.”
Just how the group plans to keep the centers open is still in the works. At a meeting held last week, the group voted to have parents and volunteers run the centers, and to solicit funds from the Oakland community to pay for operational costs, in order “to send a strong message of protest to the governor and the legislature,” according to the group’s manifesto.
But the district has since rejected the idea. Flint, the OUSD spokesman, said the district explored the option but ruled it out because of liability issues. “We completely support this idea in principle and applaud the enthusiasm and commitment of the parents, but it would put us at serious risk,” Flint said.
Additionally, he said, allowing non-licensed individuals to run the centers could jeopardize the district’s state contract to operate all the Childhood Development Centers. “That would be even more harmful to the parents in the long run.”
Oakland Parents Together is trying to work around those issues, by offering to provide its own liability insurance for activities at the centers, and soliciting help from licensed teachers who are on summer vacation or who have been recently laid off. If necessary, at least one parent said she was ready to lock herself to the door of the Manzanita center on Monday to make her point.
“I’ve made a commitment, I’m going to be here no matter what,” said Laurice Brown, whose five children attend the Manzanita center. “This is going to be like a 1960s movement.”
Shirley Guevara, a teacher who was laid off two weeks ago from the Hintil Kuu Ka Childhood Development Center, said she planned to hold class outside on Monday, with the help of parents and volunteers. “We’ll have a nature school,” she said. “We’ll have balls and books, paper, pencils, crayons. We’re ready.”
Back at Piedmont, the mood was more defeated than revolutionary. While the kids took their midday nap in another room, Lee flipped somberly through papers as classical music played in the background.
“I think the saddest part of it all is that OUSD is going in the right direction in recognizing the importance of preschool and early childhood development,” Lee said, “but if the state doesn’t back you up with the money, it’s really hard.”
Lee said she planned to make cupcakes for the kids on their last day and a fruit tart for the staff. “It’s hard enough, I didn’t want to make it a big deal.”
Flint from OUSD said he hoped Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed gutting of early childhood education was a “bluff or a gambit,” as some have speculated, to try and wrest a compromise from legislators on other, less controversial parts of the budget.
“We’re hoping this downsize isn’t permanent,” said Flint, “but certainly you have to prepare for the worst.”
The Bay Citizen reports Friday, July 30 that the district made a last minute reallocation of federal stimulus funds, and seven centers (excluding Parker) will remain open until the end of August. Read the story here: http://www.baycitizen.org/education/story/oakland-child-care-centers-remain-open/