Budgets squeeze child care at community colleges

There is growing demand for child care, especially as the economy drives parents back to school. But some colleges find it harder or impossible to keep child-care centers open.
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Edmonds Community College's <a href="http://childcare.edcc.edu/&quot; target="_blank">web site</a> encourages contributions to its child-care program.

There is growing demand for child care, especially as the economy drives parents back to school. But some colleges find it harder or impossible to keep child-care centers open.

For Lisa Neumann, managing and directing the Center for Families at Edmonds Community College can feel like trying to breathe underwater.

The center hosts the Head Start, Family Life Education/Parent Cooperative Preschools programs, as well as the Early Childhood Education and Family Support services programs, serving as a model resource for early learning in Snohomish County.

But at the end of each budget year (one just closed June 30), the center is consistently in the red — despite cutting operations to the bone. And, in spite of an extraordinary effort by the college's student government to support the center, Neumann fears this year and the following years will be no different if actions are not taken to help support the center's budget.

EdCC's Center for Families (CFF) is not alone in its struggle to stay afloat, especially as budget cuts flood every community and technical college in the state. According to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the overall cut to the system since the 2009-10 budget enactment totals $73.6 million. Over the last two years, the cuts have forced community and technical colleges to end or reduce many programs and services invaluable to students' success and retention.

The state has already seen two colleges make closures. Last year, Highline Community College shut its on-site day-care program, which had served the community for 30 years, and this year, Whatcom Community College closed its Child Development Center.

State Rep. Ruth Kagi, chair of the House Early Learning and Children's Services Committee, said, "Clearly we need to find a funding model that better supports early learning. The problem is that the reimbursement rates are just not high enough.

"Maintaining child care in community colleges has become a losing proposition."

The main struggle the center, which serves about 300 children over the course of a week, involves providing low-cost child care to student parents who need it most. Currently, more than 50 percent of the students enrolled at the center utilize the child care system through Working Connections, a child care program available through the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), helping those families meeting certain income requirements pay for the costs of child care. In 2005, just 10 percent of families were covered by the program.

"Some families pay co-pays as low as $15 a month or as high as $400 a month, when child care services in this area can cost up to $1,100 to $1,300 a month," center director Neumann said.

Neumann said, "To administer CFF and to operate the child care program alone, we need over $670,000 a year. Our shortfalls are often $35,000 to $40,000 a year."

The center is one out of a handful of child care facilities in its area that does not deny access or put caps and restrictions on the number of Working Connections parents; many child care systems do not even accept Working Connections into their programs.

"Accepting Working Connections creates an unknown deficit," Neumann said. "In the past, when we discussed about limiting those slots, we realized more and more that it would cancel out our mission statement. We would be setting up a barrier for students who have the least amount of resources to go to school."

It is no surprise to her that enrollment at the center is consistently full, and they continue to have pages-long waiting lists for infants and toddlers. Central to the center's mission, Neumann said, is to provide convenient, quality, low-cost child care to the diverse culture of Snohomish County — but it doesn't bring in enough money through government reimbursement to pay the bills, leaving the center in a catch-22 position.

The state reimbursement rate remains significantly less than the cost of providing the services. For infant care, for example, the state pays $38.13 per day as opposed to the $57 cost.

"Supporting child care at the legislative level is an ongoing battle," Kagi said. "We are serving more and more students with less and less resources.

"Especially as community colleges make worker retraining part of their mission statements, it is critically important that students have access to good, quality childcare."

As the Center for Families approaches this next fiscal year, Neumann finds herself treading in unsure and nervous water. On one end, she feels a slight relief from the tremendous support from the student government, which has committed to pay up to 17 percent of the center's total operating budget with student activity fees every year for four years. Yet she is concerned about the lack of support coming from the institution itself.

Neumann proposed to the college president'ꀙs cabinet that the institution commit to a 4-year funding plan to support the center, similar to the student government's support.

Jack Oharah, president of EdCC, said that the college could not commit to a 4-year funding plan now. "Especially in this economy, we just couldn't guarantee funding on that kind of time scale," he said. "There is just no line item from the state to help support it, and it's going to be an ongoing issue in the years ahead."

Rather, Oharah challenged Neumann and the center to continue to look for funding through outside sources, such as fundraising and grants. "It's something that we have to continue to work on if we are going to keep child care an option at the college," Oharah said.

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