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State Latchkey Funds Fall Short : Enrollment Clause Prompts Some Centers to Turn Back Money

August 21, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

The state's $15.3-million program to improve after-school care for "latchkey" children has gotten off to a rocky start. Nearly one of every 10 school districts and child-care agencies selected to participate has returned the money, saying it cannot meet the state's requirements.

One of three San Fernando Valley agencies granted state money may soon do the same.

Last year the Legislature allocated money that was expected to eventually provide care for 16,000 children of working parents statewide. During the initial application process last spring, 160 school districts and agencies were selected. Thirteen subsequently withdrew from the program.

At issue is the requirement that child-care centers match every state-funded youngster with another whose parents can pay on a sliding scale between $30 and $40 a week based on their incomes.

The Volunteers of America's Maud Booth Family Center in North Hollywood received almost $70,000 in latchkey funds. Like many agencies in low-income neighborhoods, the center may not be able find enough parents who can afford to spend anything for after-school care. Officials there have not yet returned the money, but they say it is likely they soon will.

"We serve a predominantly low-income area and many of our parents are single parents," said Deborah Wysocki, a teacher at the East Valley center that has a program serving 75 school-age children. "We need more money."

The required balance between subsidized and paying children was part of a political compromise that secured the latchkey funding in the waning hours of last year's legislative session.

Jeanne Bird, the program's coordinator, said that not all of the 13 child-care providers who withdrew did so because of the required 50-50 match. Some agencies said they could not implement the program in the several months before summer. Others complained that they could not afford to hire the credentialed staff the state demands. However, state officials and child-care agencies identified the required balance as the most crucial weakness in the new program.

"All this money was allocated, but most of the people I know in the child-care network are having problems implementing this program," said Patricia Lane, a division director for Volunteers of America.

There is a provision to help agencies in low-income areas. A child-care center may ask the superintendent of public instruction's office to waive the balance. The center must prove that it has tried but failed to find parents able to pay.

However, the school districts and agencies must first accept the state money and implement the program before applying for a waiver. If the waiver is denied, the agency must then seek outside funding or terminate the program and return the state funds.

"It will be a case-by-case decision. It's likely that the superintendent will be very lenient and grant waivers in this first year," Bird said. "The unfortunate part of this is that we were not given the authority to grant the waivers up front."

The East Valley Family YMCA in North Hollywood received $121,000 in latchkey funds and has used the money to add 25 children to its already existing program of 160. It has done so without meeting the necessary 50-50 match. Gordon Imlay, the club's executive director, said he is hoping to reach a balance by the end of the year. If he cannot, the YMCA must return its state funding, money that it will already have spent on child care.

"We're taking a gamble," Imlay said.

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who authored the original latchkey funding bill, has authored a follow-up bill that would allow child-care providers to obtain a waiver before they spend the money to implement the program.

Roberti's original bill, which asked for $100 million, was whittled down to $15 million after Legislature opposition. Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed an earlier $35-million version that he termed unmanageable.

"We really are paying a lot for kids who are not in child care," said Marjorie Morris, executive director of the Child Care Resource Center of the San Fernando Valley. "They are the ones who are involved in graffiti, vandalism and purse-snatching.

"Instead, we could be providing for them sports and hobbies," Morris said. "We could help them to do important things with their lives."

Child-care providers also say that the financing reimburses them at a rate of only $1.55 an hour. Agencies say it costs $1.75 an hour to provide such care in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles.

"What we are all learning in this initial year is that this program is not a simple thing," Bird said. "It is much more complex than we thought. Our projections may not have been accurate."

Child-care workers say they are just beginning to understand the extent of the need for after-school care. Of an estimated 47,000 Valley children in need of care, 80% are school age. Yet less than half the child-care services in the Valley are devoted to latchkey children.

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