That Early Learning Initiative, a long-languishing project of Weinberger's, has seen few tangible results, Seven Daysrecently reported, despite a council-approved infusion of $500,000 in funds last year.
Only $14,000 of that money has gone to childcare providers so far: A grant to Ohavi Zedek Full Circle preschool, the only childcare center to submit an application.
A new round of funding will go out in May, said Noelle MacKay, director of the Community and Economic Development Office. She expected more applicants this time around.
But childcare providers voiced concerns that the current funding model wasn't working. To receive grant money, daycare centers are required to add more spaces for kids, which some said was impractical. It also limits funding to $50,000 per center.
Sarah Adams-Kollitz, director of the Burlington Children’s Space, wrote in a letter to the committee that BCS, which offers care to low-income families, is struggling to retain staff and "cannot continue to cover its costs without sustained public investment."
Over the past years, Adams-Kollitz said that she has lost the optimism she once had for the city's Early Learning Initiative. “Somewhere along the way, that original vision was lost," she wrote to the committee. "Expansion was prioritized over quality services and sustainability. The needs of children and families were forgotten. The very programs doing the work of the project were ignored in favor of out-of-state consultants and a revolving set of advisors.”
Charles Winkleman, a Burlington resident who teaches preschool in Winooski, compared the desire for more childcare openings to trying to build an addition on a house when the roof is on fire. “You need to put out the fire before you can consider adding to the house,” he said.
The testimony spurred the three-member committee — Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) and Adam Roof (I-Ward 8)— to pass a resolution asking the mayor's administration to consider a long-term approach to providing funds to childcare providers that would allow them to use the cash for operating expenses or to cover scholarships for low-income children. Members of CEDO and the administration will report back to the committee in June.
A scholarship program would bring the Early Learning Initiative full circle: The idea was part of an earlier plan the city proposed in 2015, but it was later discarded as impractical.
Some councilors spoke forcefully in support of the proposition.
Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Central District), who attended the meeting but doesn't sit on the committee, said she wouldn’t vote for the city budget in June if it didn't include such money to help low-income kids. “These are public dollars, and we need to prioritize the needs of the population that need this the most," she said. "I will not vote for an allocation that goes to pretty well-positioned, middle-class families. I think that will be wrong."
Weinberger, in a statement Friday, argued that his administration had long planned for scholarships and took issue with Seven Days' reporting.
I am very pleased with the committee’s decision to endorse both the Administration’s short-term proposal to focus the second round of 2018 grants on planning and capacity enhancements and the Administration’s plan to start the low-income scholarship phase of the program next fiscal year. This two-phase approach was proposed by the Administration when we introduced the new program in May 2017 – the only change to the original phasing plan that the Administration brought to the committee is that we now plan to accelerate the start of the scholarship phase. In no way was the committee action direction to the Administration to ‘re-think’ its approach, and in no way have I ever ‘discarded’ the concept of child care scholarships for low-income infants and toddlers that I have been championing for years.
Meanwhile, the administration will ask the council to approve another $500,000 for the project for the next fiscal year.
Hopefully this time, Paul said, the cash would actually end up in the hands of the childcare providers. "We make the assumption that when we allocate the money, it’s actually being spent," she said.