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F.C. School Board Punts On Expanding Day Care

 

4-3 Vote Stalls Push to Open Program to All

Shying away from its earlier vote, the Falls Church School Board decided by a 4-3 margin Tuesday to send back to the drawing board plans to open up its day care program.

 

Earlier this month, the board gave preliminary approval by a 5-2 margin to a plan to unify the policies of its two after-school day care programs and to open them up to all school-aged children living in or going to schools, public or private, in the City. Currently, the elementary school program is limited to children with working parents.

It was near capacity at Tuesday’s dramatic meeting. Parents queued up to petition the board, most opposed to changing the program. The division was sharp but cordial.

The two-hour episode culminated when a motion by board member Kieran Sharpe to defer the matter pending a report from a special task force carried by a single vote.

Sharpe was joined by board chair Craig Cheney, Susan Kierney and Joan Wodiska calling for the deferral, while Kathy Chandler, Rosaura Aguerrebere and Ron Peppe voted against it.

Sharpe said he did not envision the delay to go into 2008. A task force to study the parameters of the issue will be appointed by the board at its August 28 work session.

Sharpe said he was fearful of being “blind-sided” by “unintended consequences” without subjecting the plan to more thorough review. “The first rule should be to do no harm and to preserve the program for those who currently need and enjoy the program, and then to see if additional services can be met,” he said. “We don’t yet know how severe the needs are that exist.”

Sharpe was among the five that gave a preliminary OK to the policy change on July 10, being joined at that time by Chandler, Aguerrebere, Peppe and Kierney. Only Cheney and Wodiska voted “no” then.

Kierney was the only board member Tuesday to comment on what she said was the initial impetus for the policy change. That was the board’s need to bring its day care policy into line with new state law.

Earlier this decade, she noted, state law mandated that public school-sponsored day care programs in local jurisdictions had to also be open to students attending private schools in the jurisdiction.

The fact that this requires the Falls Church programs to accept children of parents who do not live in Falls Church will be unfair to other parents who reside in the City, she said.

But technically, the state-mandated policy is now in effect, chimed in Cynthia Garner, representing the City program. The City is not in violation of state law as long as it accepts private school children, in practice, even as appropriate changes in the language of the City’s policy still languish, she said.

Fourteen parents spoke against changing the current policy, including two City Council members, Mayor Robin Gardner and Hal Lippman, and three members of the schools’ original day care advisory board that crafted and implemented the original policy in 1975. They were Cricket Moore, Jackie Droujinsky and Jane Scully.

Three parents spoke in favor of opening up the program to all school children, regardless of the status of their parents, and that group included Council member Dan Maller.

The current Day Care Advisory Board is also on record as being opposed to the change, along with signatures of 73 citizens on a letter submitted to the school board.

The opposition expressed was mostly on grounds of lack of adequate space to accommodate a larger program, as well as potential difficulties attracting strong additional staff members “willing to work part time with no benefits,” as one citizen said. Money and lack of sufficient study and consideration of other potential consequences were also echoed in the remarks of many opponents.

After Cricket Moore described the colorful process of creating the original program in 1975, reviewing with a colleague their petition from a phone booth on the Outer Banks in the middle of August, board member Ron Peppe cited her comments.

Calling for being open to change, Peppe said, “In reference to calling from a phone booth 30 years ago, well, there are no more phone booths in 2007, and the definition of working has changed, too. We should not base our policy on ‘here’s the way we’ve always done it.’”

Auguerrebere said, “If a child of non-working parents needs day care, then they should be allowed to be in day care.”

Cheney commented, “The passion of wanting to participate in the program is there.” Peppe added that rather than being a divisive issue, it should be addressed from the standpoint that everyone values the quality of the program as it has been, and therefore it should be addressed from that shared conception.

Droujinsky assailed the “misconception” that the current program is not open to children when parents have special needs, working or not. Disability, having to attend to ill family members, or having to be absent from home for a variety of extenuating circumstances are among the parental conditions that currently qualify a child for the program, she said.

But Beth West challenged “those who claim the authority to say whose household merits day care or not,” adding, “It is discriminatory, plain and simple, to rank who is more important than another.”

Kathy Allen, however, said, “This is not about inclusiveness. It is about space, staff and the money we have.”