The Burlington City Council has dished out its first full round of grants to daycares and preschools, approving $455,000 in spending as part of the city’s Early Learning Initiative, an effort to help make early childhood education more accessible and affordable.
The Sara Holbrook Community Center and Greater Burlington YMCA got $150,000 and $130,000, respectively, for capital campaigns as the YMCA buys a new building and Sara Holbrook prepares for a renovation. Those two programs will create at least 58 new preschool slots, according to the proposal approved by the council.
The Burlington Children’s Space, the Janet S. Munt Family Room, Pine Forest Children’s Center, Robin’s Nest Children’s Center, and Ohavi Zedek Full Circle Preschool also got awards, ranging from $5,000 for Full Circle to $75,000 that the Children's Space will use to purchase its building.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said Monday that he was optimistic that "these investments will lead to downstream savings" for the city.
It's been a long time coming. Weinberger has been working on early learning since 2013, a year after he was first elected mayor. The city produced a pair of planning documents and created two groups to study the issue, but until this year, had yet to make any tangible progress.
In May 2017, Weinberger announced $500,000 in annual funding for the initiative.
But when the grants were first offered in January, the city received only one application. In March, the council awarded Full Circle $14,000 for renovations.
"This year's experience shows when you’re designing new programs, there can certainly be delays and twists and turns," Weinberger said. "We’ve been persevering with this program."
The city revised the criteria and reopened the grant process, raising the maximum grant total from $50,000 to $150,000, and allowing groups to request money for capital campaigns and staff training.
This time around, all the applicants received money, though some were awarded less than they requested.
Besides the $455,000 dished out to the seven childcare centers, the city also paid $30,000 to the childcare advocacy organization, Vermont Birth to 5, to administer the grants.
At Monday night's council meeting, Sarah Adams-Kollitz, executive director of the Burlington Children's Space, thanked Weinberger for his willingness to invest in early education. "You really never balance your budget," she said of running an organization such as her nonprofit. "You just throw money into the hole."
Finding ways to fill the gaps has meant "three years of discussions about early childhood funding and what it takes to run a program in this city," Adams-Kollitz said.
If all goes as planned, there's more money on the way.
The budget for fiscal year 2019, which started on July 1, includes another $500,000 for early learning. This time around, the city plans to use the cash for scholarships for low-income kids, though the details have yet to be ironed out, Weinberger said.
Kinks in the plan would be ironed out, even if it takes a few tries, he added: "We'll persevere ... whatever it takes."