City leaders tell parents: preschools will stay open

A plethora of promises were doled out to riled-up parents at the Murphy Community Center on Tuesday, as the director of Boston Centers for Youth and Family and the mayor’s policy advisor both vowed not to close a cherished preschool program.

Nearly 200 showed up at the meeting, surprising BCYF director Daphne Griffin.
“We’ve not had this many people in the room that say ‘We care about the program. We care about the staff,’” Griffin told the crowd.

Read this letter from Griffin to the Reporter this week.

By contrast, at the Perkins Community Center on Talbot Avenue, 13 parents showed up to talk about the transformation of their preschool from a city-funded program into a program run by an outside non-profit. A meeting at the Marshall is scheduled for tonight.

Responding to the surge, Griffin announced that the city would provide an extension to the five preschool programs, funding the teachers until Jan. 1, instead of June 1, as was previously announced. Picking up on some sentiment in the room that that would only put a possible demise just past November’s mayoral election, Menino’s chief policy advisor Michael Kineavy spoke up.

“We understand how important this is,” said Kineavy. “The reason we want to extend it six months is because we think we can come up some creative ways to keep it going. We hear what you’re saying and we understand what our tasks are… The program’s staying open… Those just aren’t empty promises, we want to give you what you’re holding on to.”

In all, the BCYF plans to cut funding for staff at nine programs in eight centers, five of which are preschools. The rest are after-school programs. The five preschools have 10 staff teachers altogether, said Griffin, and cutting their salaries from the payroll will save almost $500,000. The two salaries of the Murphy’s teachers, Lisa Zinck (who has worked there for 17 years) and Sheila Reardon, add up to around $85,000 a year.

The BCYF has been told to plan for a 7 percent budget cut for fiscal year 2010, or roughly a $1.5 million chunk off of this year’s $22 million figure. But that cut is made larger because of the normal cost increases that would have added to the $22 million, such as automatic wage hikes that happen every year. The Menino Administration is seeking a wage freeze from all 44 city-employee unions, many of which have yet to accept it. The mayor is also pursuing new revenue options such as a meals tax and an expanded telecommunications property tax, but the outlook for both is looking dim in the legislature. If the home rule petitions there do fail, the budget picture could be even dimmer than predicted.

There are 44 BCYF employees being cut in all, said Griffin, including many in the central office.
“We’re not just looking at personnel cuts, we’re looking at everything,” she said.

Griffin committed to help the various community center councils write grants to fund the programs.
Asked after the meeting why, if the preschool program could be funded through grants, those grants wouldn’t be run through the city rather than a local community center council, Kineavy replied that it was part of a larger effort to codify the wide variety of programs in the BCYF system.

“In 32 other places, this is normal,” said Kineavy. “A 7 percent budget cut is difficult across the board. ‘Could we transfer this to the council and not lose anything?’—That was how we were thinking. It got twisted around that the service is going away and that’s not the case.”

Joan Pierce, vice chair of the Murphy’s council, said she would be committed to finding funding for the program as well, but both she and Griffin admitted the cost of the program would have to rise—maybe significantly.

As she calculated it, the current tuition works out to around $1.70 an hour for each toddler, said Griffin. At one point, she said it might need to be up around $5 or $8 to work financially, but she quickly added that it would depend on what kind of funding could be found through grants—and that she is committed to keeping the program affordable. Parents objected specifically to any type of state daycare voucher program, as most in the neighborhood would not qualify.

“Who knows,” said parent Stacie McCarthy after the meeting. “If they work to keep the program, its great. But I think sometimes people say what they want to hear. I don’t know if that’s what’s happening here.”

“The need to keep Lisa and Sheila, there’s no doubt about that,” said Adrienne Kaszanek, another parent. “My 3-year-old takes soap and water to the mirror in the bathroom and he’s writing his name with his fingers because he learned it in school.”

Griffin assured parents this would be the first of several meetings on the preschool. And Councillor Maureen Feeney, who has been focused on the Murphy’s preschool and the closure of the center over the summer in the last week or two, said she would be vigilant as well.

“We don’t have a lot of options, this is all we have,” said Feeney of the preschool, which has been in operation for over 30 years. “I think that over the years the leadership we’ve had in the preschool—people really believe their kids will get a head start... I can assure you that the entire staff has looked at this 10 days till Sunday.”