When Maggie Blanchard drops off her daughter, Sidney, at Santa Fe Community College's Early Childhood Development Center in the morning, the 2-year-old "tears right into the school, runs down the hall to go into her classroom and immediately dives into whatever it is that they're doing," Blanchard tells SFR.
"She loves going there," Blanchard says. "When the weekend comes, she's upset because she can't go to school, and it's not like we have boring, un-fun weekends as a family."
Blanchard is grateful to have found a child care center she trusts. Beyond that, though, the ECDC is special: It has a five-star rating from the state, and its focus on early childhood education gives kids a head start on the skills they'll need in kindergarten.
But excellence has a price. Nationwide, child care costs have skyrocketed: In most states, a year of infant care currently costs more than a year of college. On top of that, New Mexico's budget crisis has forced state agencies to cut crucial child care reimbursements for poor families—which in turn reduces the amount of money coming into the ECDC.
All of this means the ECDC's days may be numbered. As SFCC board members mull the center's fate, families like the Blanchards are left wondering—and worrying.
Of the 68 student-parents and community members the center serves, only one-third pay full tuition (approximately $1,000 per month). The rest receive subsidies from the state Children, Youth and Families Department and pay only about $500 per month depending on the child's age.
Last October, though, CYFD reduced the amount of money it reimburses per child per month by about $20, exacerbating an already significant disparity between the money SFCC takes in and the cost of maintaining the center's high-quality services.
This year, the college will foot the bill for $330,000-$350,000 to keep the center open, the most it has ever run in the red.
To some, that's reason enough to give it the ax.
"I think the time of the college running a child care center has ended," SFCC Board Chairwoman Linda Siegle tells SFR. "If we could take that $330,000, there's a lot of things we could do with that that would academically benefit students in our community," she says. "I mean, we have so many projects out there that we could use that money for—[the ECDC] doesn't seem like a wise use of money."
Recognizing that it needed to make a change, SFCC put out a request for proposals in April seeking an outside contractor to take over management of the center and run it more efficiently. But relatively few providers manage companies' or institutions' child care centers. At its June 16 meeting, the board rejected the sole offer it received, from Massachusetts-based Bright Horizons, because it wouldn't significantly cut the ECDC's costs.
But some board members say there's another option: capping the total number of CYFD-subsidized clients allowed to enroll in the ECDC.
At the June 16 meeting, board members gave SFCC Vice President of Finance Meridee Walters the go-ahead to research whether cutting the CYFD slots down to 20 would significantly improve the center's financial picture. If the ECDC ends up, for the first time ever, capping the subsidized slots, that would mean turning away four of the 24 SFCC students on CYFD funding who bring their kids to the center, even though providing child care for its own students is the center's primary mission.
"Cutting the number of subsidized slots, that doesn't make sense to me if our purpose is to serve the children of our students, faculty and staff," Siegle, who favors shutting down the ECDC completely, says. "Why should the college subsidize a child care center if we're going to have very few students' kids in it?"
Board Vice President Andrea Bermúdez recognizes the same conundrum—that making the center affordable might compromise its ability to serve its most important clients: SFCC students.
But the ECDC provides child care for less than one percent of SFCC's total enrollment, Bermúdez says, "so it's not like we would be taking away this incredible resource that the students [would be using]."
At the same time as CYFD is cutting back on the amount it reimburses child care centers, the cost of providing high-quality child care continues to rise. In addition to its five-star state rating, the ECDC also has certification from the National Association for the Education of Young Children—both of which represent added expenses.
"With five-star accreditation comes requirements for further training and higher education, and consequently [staff] get reclassified and get higher levels of pay commensurate with those qualifications," Walters says. "And so that kind of builds in an automatic escalation of costs that happens over time."
To parents like Renata and Joe Galon, whose two-year-old son knows his ABCs a couple of years early, the benefits are worth the cost. And at a June 15 meeting, ECDC parents showed they were eager to pitch in with fundraising efforts in order to help save the center. But SFCC President Sheila Ortego says donors typically don't fund recurring costs like the ECDC's operating expenses.
"That's not the silver bullet or whatever, the great solution," Ortego says. "Grant funding is always temporary, and you need to develop more sustainable resources."
Walters plans to report back to the SFCC board at its July 21 meeting on the feasibility of reducing the CYFD slots. Siegle, who participated in last week's meeting via phone because she was in Washington, DC, at the time, tells SFR she plans to assert the idea of closing the ECDC at the July board meeting.
"I don't have any confidence that anything we're going to do at this point is going to bring the subsidy [SFCC must pay to keep the center open] down to $200,000, or even $250,000," Siegle says. "We talk and talk about it, and we try something, and then it doesn't work, and we talk and talk about it again," she says. "I just don't feel confident we're going to solve the problem."
Try telling that to Maggie Blanchard, who plans on bringing Sidney's little brother to the ECDC after he is born this fall.
"I really don't know what we would do [if the ECDC closed], honestly," Blanchard says. "That's why I'm just crossing my fingers."