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Preschool can’t make rent, closes down

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet Staff
Saturday February 24, 2001

Finding affordable quality childcare will get even harder next week, when Dragonfly Preschool shuts its doors forever. 

The childcare center that serves 31 children, from infants to 5 year olds, has a pile of debts and has determined that it can no longer operate. Dragonfly is located on the campus of the Berkeley Adult School near Bonar Street and University Avenue, but is not associated with the school district.  

“We’re one of a few which does infant care,” said Executive Director Isabelle Mousard, touting the center’s “family atmosphere” 

The nonprofit program, half of whose parents receive subsidized care, has had a hard time making its $4,000 monthly payments to the school district. “We can’t afford the overhead.” Mousard said. 

Judson Owens, the district’s general services manager explains that the program fell behind in its rent before Mousard came on board as director last summer. A payment schedule was worked out.  

Earlier, the district had allowed the program to expand to include more space in exchange for doing maintenance on the building. Owens said he cannot cut the rent for the preschool. “That would be a gift of taxpayer dollars” and illegal, he said. He said he was still interested in negotiating with the school to see if it could exchange other services with the district. 

Dragonfly Board President Dan Robinson, however, claims communicating with BUSD has been difficult. 

Mousard says the program’s cash-flow problems stem from CalWORKS’ Links program, the state’s welfare-to-work childcare reimbursement for welfare parents going to school or to work. CalWORKS does not reimburse Dragonfly regularly for services, she said. 

Wendy Norton, program director for the Pleasanton-based CalWORKS Links Program disputes the notion that CalWORKS’ is at the root of Dragonfly’s money problems. 

“We processed all payments to the Dragonfly Preschool,” she said, underscoring that reimbursement for the program is complex and depends on parent eligibility and on the childcare centers turning in their attendance sheets in a timely way. “It all affects payment,” she said. “There are multiple issues involved.” 

Norton said she was unable to disclose the particulars of the Dragonfly clients. “Each case is different,” she said. “Circumstances surrounding the cases are confidential.” 

Board President Robinson explained attendance forms are scrupulously turned in on time. The problem is that after the forms are in, the workers at CalWORKS interview the clients to make sure their use of the childcare is appropriate, so that, for example, they are in school or on their jobs while their children are in care.  

Robinson said, however, that becomes complicated. In one instance, a teen mother has difficulty fulfilling the contract with CalWORKS. The school, however, feels an obligation to take care of the preschooler. “It’s the child who would get hurt,” he said.  

Further, CalWORKS does not reimburse the childcare center during vacations. Dragonfly therefore loses money at Christmas, spring break and during the summer. 

Dragonfly’s closing, slated for Feb. 28, comes in the midst of a local childcare crunch. Within a year, Grizzly Peak Childcare, Sunflower House and Harmony Day Care, all in Berkeley, have shut down, Mousard said. 

“The recent closings have a lot to do with the childcare crisis in staffing,” said Betty Cohen, executive director for Bananas, a childcare referral and advocacy agency. 

That’s because people have a hard time finding staff who will work for the close-to-minimum wages childcare workers make, Cohen said. 

Cohen said she is working with families, trying to find childcare for them, but conceded it would be a challenge to find a center such as the one that is closing. 

“They’re losing something they really liked,” Cohen said of the parents out scrambling for care. “They’ll have to start all over again.”