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Vera Casey’s Son Returns to Berkeley To Rescue Day Care Program Founded By His Mother

Tuesday June 01, 2004

When Dan Casey came to Berkeley last month to visit his ailing father, he discovered that the Board of Education had delivered a death sentence to the Vera Casey Center, the pioneering day care program his mother established 32 years ago at Berkeley High to provide support for school-aged mothers and care for their babies. 

Upon hearing the news, Casey promptly set up shop in a Berkeley hotel and began work to save the center and his mother’s legacy. 

Now, after weeks of crunching numbers and talking to dozens of child care experts—many of them former contacts of his mother, who died 20 years ago—Casey says he has a business model that can operate the center at no cost to the school district, which spent $75,000 this year to cover the program’s deficit. 

Casey’s credentials make his plan tough to ignore. The Harvard Business School graduate and Anchorage, Alaska businessman has managed millions in public and private funds, and previously served as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. 

“Obviously this is an emotional issue for me,” said Casey who painted the center’s walls before it first opened in 1972, and, several years later as an economics major at UC Berkeley, helped produce a report on the financial value of keeping student mothers in mainstream schools—a concept pioneered by Vera Casey. 

Still, he said, “If I had found that this wouldn’t have paid for itself I wouldn’t be doing this. It just quickly became clear that there is an economic model that works.” 

Casey proposes to boost enrollment for community members and charge them higher fees to help subsidize the student mother program. 

His plan, however, faces stiff competition and some unlikely skeptics. 

The Vera Casey Center Board of Directors, a natural ally for Casey, feels he has ignored them, according to David Hench, the husband of a board member. 

“The board is concerned that Dan Casey is coming in from Alaska and asserting authority he doesn’t have,” said Hench, who added that Casey had not yet met face-to-face with a single board member. 

“He’s creating a lot of angst that is unnecessary,” Hench said. 

After the school board voted last March to eliminate the center effective June 19, community members huddled to find an alternative service provider for pregnant and parenting and students at Berkeley High. 

Their solution was to bring in Berkeley Head Start—the federal child care program for poor families—to run the Vera Casey Center with a guarantee that Head Start would accept the students’ children and the Berkeley High Health Center would assume the support services for the student mothers. 

The two programs don’t have a history of collaboration, and vying for the center hasn’t improved relations. 

Casey charged that District Preschool Director John Santoro had been pushing Head Start, which contracts to the district’s preschool program, into the center long before the board cut funding for program.  

“He started going around saying Vera Casey was dead meat,” Casey said. 

Pamm Shaw, executive director of Berkeley Head Start, said the two centers had never understood each others’ programs and that Vera Casey Center management had rebuffed her previous offers to work together. “I’m sorry for the families that it’s been so political,” she said. “I don’t think it needed to be this way.” 

With the Vera Casey Center set to shut down, Superintendent Michele Lawrence plans to present her preferred choice to the school board June 9. Although she wouldn’t disclose which plan she favored, Lawrence said Casey’s numbers were “still speculative.” 

Teaming with Berkeley Head Start has obvious advantages for both the district and the federal day care program. 

After years of bailing out Vera Casey Center debts, the district would be out of the child care business and free from any financial liability. Federal head start grants would pay to care for the children at the center across the street from Berkeley High and the state CAL-SAFE grant would pay to provide more extensive services for the children and counseling for the parents at the high school health center. 

For Head Start, occupying the Vera Casey Center would give it a prime location with a bargain basement rent.  

The program is vacating its Emeryville location where it pays $20,000 for one classroom and continues to pay $50,000 for three classrooms in a building on San Pablo Avenue. 

Head Start would only pay $4,500 for the 34-child capacity Vera Casey Center, which is owned by the Vera Casey Foundation, a nonprofit with strong connections to the First Presbyterian Church. While Head Start is restricted to serving only 86 children in its infant and toddler program, reduced rent would allow it to spend more money on amenities like equipment, supplies and staff benefits, Shaw said. 

What Head Start can’t provide, according to Vera Casey supporters, is the combination of child care and parent services all under one roof. 

Dealing with high school mothers takes special skills and every professional says it makes a big difference to have staff that’s primarily focused on that mission, Casey said.  

That was his mother’s philosophy, he said, when she worked to make Berkeley the first school district in California to provide infant care and counseling for student mothers.  

Vera Casey was an unlikely reformer. Born into a strict Virginia home, she became a teacher late in life. While working as a home economics instructor at the former continuation high school in Berkeley, she realized that many of her chronically absent students were parents. To get them into class, Casey set up a day care program through the First Presbyterian Church adjacent to the school. 

Later she determined that the mothers should be able to attend the regular high school, so she raised money to buy the future Vera Casey Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way next to Berkeley High School. 

Praised as a national model, which included vocational training for the mothers, the center was a springboard for a state grant program, enacted by former governor Ronald Reagan, to fund similar programs. The grants helped support the center as it transformed itself from a primarily volunteer to a professional staff. However in recent years the funding has stagnated while labor costs have skyrocketed. 

To make the center financially solvent, Dan Casey proposes to serve 14 community children (six part time, eight full time) at prices 25 percent above what the center had been charging. The added revenue coupled with other grant money he plans to seek would allow the center to hire an additional instructional assistant, and free up the district’s CAL-SAFE program coordinator Katharine Sullivan to do outreach. 

Previous plans to save the program, Casey said, took a “nail biter approach,” trying to shift around vacations and cut services. “I said let’s see if we can’t make this thing comfortably work. There’s a big market for day care and it won’t go away next year.” 

The center started serving community members three years ago as a means to break even and to compensate for a decline in teenage pregnancy. Berkeley was recently acknowledged for having the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the state, and of the 11 children at the center, only three are the children of students. Nine current students are known to be pregnant. 

Still the transition to a combination student and community day care center didn’t go smoothly, and was further hampered last September when the district—expecting to close the program—forbade new clients even though the center had a 15-family waiting list. 

“They would have broken even this year, but the district was gearing the program down,” said Arlyce Currie, program director of Bananas, an Alameda County child care support agency. 

But not everyone is confident that Casey’s plan could work. Paul Miller, executive director of Kidango, the second largest nonprofit infant day care provider, is closing a center in San Mateo county next month that served student mothers and community members in the Sequoia School District. 

“Dan Casey has a good strategy, but I don’t think it will win the day,” he said. Kidango runs other programs similar to Vera Casey in Fremont, Newark and New Haven and they are all losing money, Miller said. 

The culprit is that state government has woefully underfunded the grants, said Miller. Since 1981, in adjusted dollars, state grants to nonprofit child care centers have fallen 30 percent. 

Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley, said the state system has stacked the deck against programs like Vera Casey. For years, she said, publicly subsidized programs paid higher salaries thanks to state grants, but now the grants are worth less, and centers, in order to qualify for the state subsidy, must meet stringent ratios of care workers to children—criteria that profit centers are not required to meet. 

“It’s an irrational and inequitable system,” she said. “The subsidized center that serves the poor has to meet a higher level of staffing and gets less money to do it.” 

This year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget includes a generous 1.84 percent cost of living expense for the state grant, but over the long run Miller doesn’t think that will be enough. 

“The governor and Legislature have to understand that either they’re willing to pay for the service, or they’re willing to let teen parents drop out of school,” he said.