Crowding Plagues Day Care Centers

By MANDY LOCKE

For far too many Island parents, the joy of bringing a baby into the world becomes clouded by the anxiety of securing and affording a quality day-care provider.

Each parent seems to have a horror story.

One mother returns to the sitter to pick up her infant, who waddles in a sagging diaper six hours old. Another - after a full year of trying to find a care provider for her two-year-old - begs her mother in law to move to the Island.

Some couples put their name on waiting lists as soon as a pregnancy test reads positive. Others pore over the family budget only to discover they would practically turn over one of their salaries to a child-care giver. A few are even driven off the Vineyard due to lack of availability and affordability.

The problem appears simple: the demand for child care far outpaces the supply of facilities. The Island is home to less than 10 licensed child-care facilities, only a few of which admit infants. Hundreds of families battle for openings.

"Mothers are not staying home with their kids until they are five years old and ready to go to public school," said Kim Baumhofer, director of Island Children's School. Yet employers consider even a two-month-long maternity leave to be generous.

One day-care center, the Rainbow Place, moved to a new facility in the last year, increasing its capacity from 18 to 32.

"I thought we'd be able to help the day-care crunch with this move. We're unbelievably full," said Cindy Andrews, director of The Rainbow Place. "We have 65 on the waiting list. We already started forming the 2003 waiting list.

"It's hard to listen to all the horror stories," she added. "It's even worse when there are special circumstances. We put them in wherever we can." Ms. Andrews said the state imposes "strict guidelines" regarding how many children can be accommodated.

The Rainbow Place is not alone; the waiting list for Martha's Vineyard Community Services' day care approaches 200, despite a capacity of only 42 children.

Faced with such long waiting lists, parents scrounge for smaller in-home facilities.

A call to the lone active listing under Sitter in the yellow pages connects parents to Arba Clark. Although she runs a sitting service for special occasions and for vacationing parents, she receives countless desperate calls from parents seeking day-to-day child care.

"People call and beg, saying, ‘It's only for a few hours a day.' I can empathize with them. When I was in that spot before I found care, I just dragged my kids around with me," Ms. Clark said.

When options run dry, parents find themselves forced to lower their standards.

"If I'm desperate, I wouldn't look at licensing. I would look at cleanliness," said Ned Robinson-Lynch, director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services. "If I'm really desperate, I wouldn't even be that picky."

While most facilities keep outrageously long waiting lists, a few places have an extra spot or two for the first time in years. Kim Baumhofer of Island Children's School suspects their two vacancies relate to their requirement that children attend five days per week. Diane Cylik-Polucci, director and lead teacher at Grace Church Preschool, thinks her empty slots speak to larger trends.

"Demographics are changing on the Island. Younger families are moving off. The families that are here - their kids are in school," says Ms. Cylik-Polucci.

Enough families remain, however, to make securing a spot a challenge. But those parents lucky enough to hold a coveted day-care spot pay dearly. The average per-hour cost of child care falls just below $5. Full-time child care costs almost $200 a week. A full-time worker at the minimum wage, after taxes, earns less than that $200 figure.

"You look at the numbers and sometimes it just doesn't make sense for both of the parents to work," said Lisa Cash, project coordinator for Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project, an agency that awards state Department of Education grants to help parents subsidize child-care costs.

Competition for these grants seems nearly as steep as simply finding availability. This year, Ms. Cash's staff distributed $40,000 among 57 families, but 30 more sat on a waiting list.

"It's heartwrenching," Ms. Cash said. "You want to help them, but the money goes so quickly."

Grant-giving agencies like the Project examine a family's gross income, using it as one variable on a sliding scale. But this money can only be used for children older than two years and nine months and only until they reach kindergarten. Infant care - far more expensive than that for toddlers - is ineligible for funding by these grants.

Aside from helping parents with child-care costs, the project helps centers attain state certification, a requirement for receiving grant money. The Project also offers financial assistance to centers for the purchase of equipment and supplies.

But the heaps of money parents and state agencies shovel into preschools does not find its way into the pockets of child-care workers.

"Child-care workers don't get paid much - sometimes as little as $8.50 an hour. The person that comes and cleans the facility gets $20 an hour," said Debbie Milne, director of early childhood programs for community services.

Ms. Andrews' employees take on extra jobs to supplement their incomes.

While centers charge nearly $200 a week per child, the average weekly cost of teaching and supervising each child is $250, Mr. Robinson-Lynch said. Rent or mortgage, equipment, utilities, salaries, insurance and state and national licenses keep overhead high.

But child-care providers know they cannot raise their rates.

"Parents pay us $4.50 an hour to watch their most precious treasure. But if we charged more, no one could afford it," Ms. Andrews said.

So, while outside grants subsidize some of the cost of care and help facilities to upgrade equipment, child-care workers see none of that.

"State grants have not made that leap to salaries yet," Ms. Baumhofer said.

"Since it doesn't pay that great, you must find something else in this field that you love," Ms. Andrews said.

But love alone does not supply facilities with a wealth of applicants for empty staff spots.

"Fewer and fewer are going into the field," Ms. Milne said. While many directors admit the Island pay scale for child-care workers registers slightly higher than off-Island because of the high cost of living, many still work without health care and other standard benefits.

And while salaries remain low, state requirements for certification continue to grow more extensive.

Ms. Cylik-Polucci said that the state issued a list of new certification requirements for preschool teachers to be implemented by 2002.

Ms. Baumhofer predicted that within the next eight years, the state will demand child-care workers attain a four-year college degree. But all of these demands come without promises of wage increases.

"There seems to be no financial compensation to accompany being treated with professional status," Ms. Cylik-Polucci said.

Questions and frustrations continue to surface, but viable solutions seem to be in short supply.

A few facility directors suggest that preschool programs should be tax supported along with grades K-12.

"Until it becomes tax-based, we will never get what we deserve," Diane said.