Change can be hard, especially when you’re 4 years old.
Explaining to dozens of preschool-aged children why their daycare had to shut down was heartbreaking for teachers like Esther Lentz. She still chokes up at the memory of how GoKids – a multi-county nonprofit child development services agency that serves many low-income families – closed one of its branches in Morgan Hill last year due to state budget cuts.
“There were a lot of tears,” said the 52-year-old Morgan Hill resident, who now works at the GoKids headquarters off Mantelli Drive in Gilroy.
Lentz recalled her encounter with a former student who now attends a GoKids facility in San Martin.
“She saw me and cried, ‘Why did you leave me, Miss Esther?’” said Lentz, her eyes growing watery. “I told her, ‘I didn’t leave you, honey. We just closed the center.’ But she was 4. She didn’t understand.”
GoKids has downsized and streamlined for three years as state funding shrunk by 25-30 percent. Lentz is one of myriad professionals in her field to witness firsthand the disheartening side effects of the 2012-13 state budget, which will shave another $294 million from government-funded childcare and early development programs.
The cost-cutting measure equates to another 11 percent, or $280,000 from the GoKids operating budget, resulting in another four staff layoffs. Children’s activities and summer field trips have also been scaled back.
Whereas GoKids’ four centers in Gilroy, San Martin and Hollister (not to mention former sites that have now closed) once regularly employed 135 employees, the nonprofit now employs 65 people. Overall, the organization has gone from serving around 1,400 children to 900. Its budget has dropped from $14 million to $9 million.
GoKids also contracts with an additional 200 independent licensed homecare providers throughout Santa Clara County, San Benito County, Monterey and Santa Cruz to offer state-subsidized funding to low-income families. The nonprofit has been forced to cut another 90-100 slots from this branch of service.
“It’s devastating,” said GoKids Executive Director Lary Drury.
It’s especially hard for parents who work “crazy” late hours in the food service industry, he said. With GoKids only offering affordable childcare during normal weekday hours, parents working around the clock often rely on home providers with flexible hours.
The current operating budget at GoKids doesn’t reflect impending uncertainties either. Drury said there could be additional cuts if Gov. Jerry Brown’s temporary tax initiative doesn’t pass in November.
“That’s the biggest concern,” he said. “It’s just one of those kind of gut feelings … you know it’s coming.”
The fluctuating fiscal scenario has taken its toll on families, early development/childcare specialists, independent licensed homecare providers and trickles down to children, according to GoKids Site Supervisor Kendra Allen.
“It’s not something that is just worrying my staff and parents,” she said. “The children are worrying about what’s going to happen to them. And that’s not OK.”
She cites one instance where a family had to go on a waiting list due to limited program space. When a slot eventually opened up, GoKids called the home to see if the family was still in need of assistance. A child answered the phone.
“We asked to speak to the parents, and they were at work,” recalled Allen. “The child said, ‘yes, I do need childcare. I do need somebody to watch me.’ ”
GoKids isn’t the only local program weathering budget setbacks.
Gavilan College’s Child Development Center – an on-campus facility serving education and community needs – will eliminate eight of 24 spaces in its half-day preschool group. The center is also closing its class for 2-year-old children.
CDC Director Susan Alonzo will inevitably turn some families away next year, she said.
“It concerns me,” Alonzo admitted. “We have both students and non-students that utilize the (CDC’s) services.”
A majority of those clients are struggling to make ends meet, she said.
“Last year in one classroom, I only had two parents that paid any type of money,” Alonzo recalled. “The majority my parents pay nothing because their income is so low.”
As the state continues to pull contracts from places like the CDC that rely on subsidies, Alonzo worries about the center infringing on Gavilan’s general operating budget. As it is, the facility was in danger of being shut down earlier this year.
“Every time we get cutbacks, the college has to contribute to keep us balanced,” said Alonzo. “And if they don’t want to compensate, then we’ll be back on the chopping block like last October.”
The long-term implications of reduced affordable childcare is an overarching concern.
Childcare professionals call attention to far-reaching consequences, such as parents being forced to choose between their jobs or selecting substandard care for their children, having to go back on welfare or drop out of school. Every dollar the state government spends on childcare, saves another $17 spent paying for prison expenses, hospital bills for pregnant teens or rehabilitating rape victims, according to Drury.
Hollister resident Vicky Grimmet, owner and operator of Miss Vicky’s Preschool & Child Care, said the budget cuts “affect everybody.” She strings together a chain reaction scenario, beginning with parents who can’t afford quality daycare. This forces homecare providers to slash their rates or turn families away, “and then the parents take their kids to ‘Uncle Bob’ or ‘Grandma Jo,’ which means the kids are going to be behind developmentally and less prepared for school, which hurts everybody,” she said. “We go from ‘No Child Left Behind’ to ‘all kids left behind.’”
Providing children with a safe and nurturing environment that supports their brain development, imparts a fundamental learning base and encourages socialization skills prior to attending kindergarten is critical during early growth stages; something Lentz pressed upon as she praised a pair of small girls for sharing a coloring book.
“Que bonito! Que colores este?” she cooed affectionately in Spanish, asking one of her students, Nereida, what colors she was using.
Lentz says many people don’t realize how the budget cuts are “breaking families apart.”
“Those kids trust us,” she said. “They trust their center, that’s their place to come and express themselves. To take it away is not a good thing.”
She turned to address a tiny, pig-tailed girl named Amber, who was busy cleaning a table with a pair of green fuzzy gloves.
“Who loves you, Amber?” asked Lentz.
Amber’s face lit up as she pointed to her teacher.