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Future of Vergennes summer childcare program in jeopardy

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December 13, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — A chronic funding shortfall could end a summer childcare program that has served up to 100 Vergennes-area children and their families in recent years.

Mary Johnson Childcare Center co-director Ilana Snyder said the Vergennes Summer School Age Program has been losing between $20,000 and $25,000 annually for the past three years. After seeing the latest numbers at the end of this past summer the MJCC board voted to pull the plug unless more funding could be found. 

But MJCC officials are still working on ways to pay for the program, which has operated either at Vergennes Union Elementary School or Vergennes Union High School in recent years and was based at VUHS this past summer.

No one who knows the program — which offers arts, sports, field trips, swimming, and other activities, plus lunches — wants to see it end, Snyder said: Many working-class families rely on it for childcare while schools are out of session, and it also serves many families whose tuition is subsidized by the state. 

“It would be a loss for that community,” she said. “A hundred kids with no place to go … That’s an issue. That’s a cause for concern.”

Families not helped by the state paid $125 a week last summer for the seven-week, full-day program, which has operated when schools are closed and grew out of the Roxanne Bannister Provencher summer recreation program in the 1990s.

Snyder said MJCC is pursuing additional state funding and private grants for the program, which is too expensive for tuition alone to support.

Meanwhile, a group of Vergennes-area parents and citizens has launched an effort to get funding for the childcare offering on the Town Meeting Day ballot in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham. They have sent letters to selectmen in Waltham and Addison, and are collecting signatures for the petitions that are needed in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Panton.

MJCC school-age program coordinator Anne Gleason said the group looked at how many children from each town have used the program over the years and prorated the requested amount based on that figure.

If all the requests are approved, about a third of the shortfall could be eliminated: The group will request $3,500 in Vergennes; $2,500 in Ferrisburgh; $1,200 in Addison; $300 in Panton; and $100 in Waltham.

Gleason said MJCC officials believe it is appropriate to ask for communities for support.

“It’s a good-faith partnership for them to enter in,” she said.

But more will be needed. Snyder said the program is not cheap for MJCC to operate. Ideally, MJCC likes at least one teacher for every 10 students to maintain program quality and adequate supervision. Meanwhile, state funding levels have not increased since 1999 — Gleason pegged the reimbursement rate at about 85 percent of this past summer’s private tuition —  while Snyder said wages and expenses keep going up.

“The cost of hiring experienced staff continues to rise. The costs of providing extra-curricular activities … are all extra expenses that are astronomically expensive,” Snyder said.

MJCC, which also runs summer programs in Middlebury and Bristol, has devoted some of its annual United Way bequest to the program as well as the state funding, but Snyder said the center’s leadership does not believe it can raise tuition — which can only cover a modest percentage of the costs in any case — much further without putting the program out of the reach of many families.

“We could not charge private tuition to cover the actual cost of care,” she said.

While the search for funding continues, Snyder said MJCC is looking not for a one-time shot in the arm, but a long-term solution.

“We don’t want to limp year to year. We don’t want to just get a fix for this year. We want to get a program that will survive summer to summer,” she said.

At the same time, MJCC officials know they have to make a decision on the coming summer in short order. Snyder said parents typically begin to ask questions about the center’s summer programs not too long after the New Year.

“After the first of the year we’ll have to reconnect and sit down and look,” she said. “It’s when we’ll start having to have a clearer idea.”

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