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Manteca hurts private child care
Kids Zone operates without state child care safety oversight
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Roxanne Fink has been running a child care center  in her home for more than 20 years.

In order to do so she must be licensed by the State of California. And she must comply with rigid rules designed to assure the health and safety of her charges. It includes exactly what can and cannot be done on the premises where child care is taking place.

The City of Manteca also operates a child care operation. The paid municipal administrative staff overseeing Kids Zone that operates at 10 schools including two not in the city limits contends they are exempt from the state law. Yet they have nothing in writing that says they can indeed not be licensed. The city staff insists children are safe yet - unlike child care providers - they require parents to sign hold harmless agreements should their child become injured while in city care. And no one from the state is overseeing the city’s program and whether it is meeting expectations of safety and care for hundreds of children.

“It’s a question of safety,” Fink insists.

The safety of children is exactly why California established some of the most stringent child care licensing laws in the country.

It is why Fink and other licensed child care providers are subject to intense inspections from the state. One Manteca child care provider, as an example, was written up because less than an inch of water had accumulated in an over turned bucket outdoors where children have never been allowed to play. The concern centered around it being a potential drowning hazard. No such inspection is ever made by the state at a City of Manteca Kids Zone site all of which are operated at Manteca Unified elementary school campuses.

There is no independent oversight of Kids Zone as it exists now.

While Fink and other Manteca childcare providers are questioning whether the city is meeting the same stringent standards of personnel training for staff that cares for kids, there is also the question whether Manteca, which prides itself on being business friendly, is anything but when it comes to child care providers.

There were 204 licensed child care providers in Manteca two years ago. Today there are 97. Among those that have gone to the wayside are four providers who used the income from their licensed child care operations to help keep a roof over their family. The loss of students cut their household income so much that they lost their homes to foreclosures.

“Some of it has to do with the economy but most of it is Kids Zone,” said Ed Fonseca who was once the city’s largest child care provider with two locations that have a capacity for 291 kids.

Fonseca, who started Hansel & Gretel Child Care 36 years ago, spent $750,000 in the 1970s to build his current location licensed for 159 children that is ironically located directly across from the Manteca Civic Center.

City of Manteca
competition hits
private sector hard
He is still the city’s largest private child care provider but is only operating at 30 percent capacity as word about Kids Zone and its two kissing cousin programs KinderZone and a before school program spread.

Fonseca hasn’t let staff go but he has drastically reduced hours.

Fonseca pays $500 a year in business licenses plus property taxes to the city that he noted dryly are being used by the city to help put him out of business.

“It is unfair competition,” Fonseca said.

Besides not following state licensing rules that require more expense to meet the city doesn’t pay rent or for utilities. They are provided by another tax subsidized entity - the Manteca Unified School District.

“There is no way we can compete” said child care provider Laura Maes who has been licensed by the state to operate out of her home for the past eight years,

Licensed child care providers typically charge $75 a week or $300 a month per child.

By contrast Kids Zone has a flat $115 monthly fee or $50 on a weekly basis. And even if a parent uses both the city’s before and after school programs the monthly tab comes to $230 per child or $70 less than a licensed child care provider can offer.

Fink and Maes - along with fellow child care provider Tricia Bergquist - noted calls from parents looking for space have dropped significantly as Kids Zone continues to expand. And when parents do call they aren’t concerned about the day care provider’s background, education, or what they offer.

“It’s all about price,” Maes said, who said she can’t compete with free electricity free space, and a city operation that doesn’t have the expense of meeting stricter state licensing standards.

Mayor Willie Weatherford, who has met with day care providers twice in recent weeks, is not happy with the situation. He noted that Kids Zone was authorized initially as a recreation program by elected leaders after the idea was pushed by former Councilman Wayne Flores. But in the past few years it has morphed into a full-time child care program the city staff insists is exempt from state licensing requirements for child care programs.

Kids Zone’s growing popularity - and what licensed child care providers contend are subsidized rates - are part of the economic forces that triggered the closure of the long running United Lutheran Preschool at the church Weatherford attends.

All church child care centers in Manteca are licensed by the state.

Information provided by the California Parks and Recreation Society that is based on State of California Day Care Licensing laws notes that city programs must operate 12 weeks or less in any calendar year to be exempt. They also must operate less than 16 hours a week, the three city programs operate for more than 40 hours and they use the same staff although the city contends they are actually three separate programs.

Kids Zone operates during the school year both before and after classes, during the summer, and even during spring break.

After Weatherford brought the concerns of the day care providers to the city’s attention, staff has started researching the issue.

City says if they find out
they need to be licensed
they will do what it takes
“We are pretty sure we are exempted but we want to make sure,” said Assistant City Manager Karen McLaughlin. “We are trying to get it in writing from someone from the state.”

McLaughlin, who is serving as the interim Parks & Recreation Director due to budget cuts, said the people responsible for launching the Kids Zone have retired from the city. It is her understanding, though, that the city was exempted from the state law.

“If we find out we aren’t we will do what it takes to comply and get licensed,” she said.

McLaughlin noted there is a ratio of one paid staff member to every 14 children. There are younger children who help but they are part of the Parks & Recreation’s junior volunteer program. McLaughlin said they do not count toward the staffing ratio of 14 to 1.

All staff has TB health screening and undergo a background check including fingerprinting.

There are two pay scales. For those with the least amount of experience, Recreation Specialist I workers are paid $8.62, $9.05 or $9.50 an hour. The Recreation Specialist II positions with more experience are paid $11.03, $11.58 or $12.16 per hour.

The child private care providers note if all costs were incorporated plus the higher expense of licensing that the gap between the city’s costs and the private sector costs for child care would narrow.

Even so, Fonseca noted the city is still in direct competition with a private sector business.

He said there would be an uproar if Manteca started selling gasoline to the public and used municipal resources to undercut the private competition.

Two city programs
operate at schools
outside city limits
As for any contention that the city was fulfilling an unmet need, Fonseca pointed to the fact there were 204 licensed child care providers in Manteca two years ago. Now there just 97. He also noted two of the Kid Zone sites - New Haven and Nile Garden - are at schools not even inside the city limits.

Any arguments that the city is providing childcare services for people who couldn’t afford them doesn’t necessarily wash. The program just cut that provides state paid child care for former welfare recipients up to two years after they get off public assistance are for those who couldn’t even afford the $115 a month city fee.

“There are alternatives in town,” Fonseca said pointing to the Boys & Girls program and the Give Every Child a Chance After School Program.

The child care providers said they’d have no issue if the city was running a simple after school, drop-in playground program.

But they contend the city is running an unlicensed child care based on information gleaned from the California Parks and Recreation Society.