DOWNEY — Kristine Cerone, a single mother of three, knows how difficult it is to find affordable child care. Six years ago, she had to transfer two of her children from Alameda Elementary to another school in Bellflower because she could better afford the state-funded child-care center there.
"For the next 3 years I drove 15 miles each way to and from work in order to take the children to child care," said Cerone, then a secretary at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center, a mile and a half from her home.
Last week, her dilemma became the subject of an emotional debate among City Council members.
After hearing impassioned pleas from Cerone and other residents for nearly 30 minutes, the council Tuesday voted 3 to 2 to operate a pilot after-school child-care program for up to 60 children. The Downey Unified School District will house the program at Imperial Elementary School. The program was proposed several months ago by a joint city-school district committee.
The narrow vote makes Downey the 10th Southeast city to offer a low-cost after-school child-care program. But it will be the first to operate without help from a school district or a private agency.
The program is scheduled to begin in January and will be open from 2:30 to 6 p.m. It will run until school ends in June, when it will be re-evaluated by the council.
The school district will have no part in administering the program, Supt. Edward A. Sussman said, but will open Imperial Elementary's auditorium and playground to the city at no cost.
Downey Community Services Director James Jarrett said the program will be run completely by the city, which will hire five child-care employees. He said the city expects to receive about $19,000 in tuition, which will cover the costs of employee wages and supplies.
Children of working parents will be given priority if the number of applicants exceeds 60, Jarrett said.
Parents whose children are in the after-school program will pay about $24 per child for a 5-day week. That fee is equal to other publicly operated child-care programs in the area, Jarrett said.
Alta Duke, the city's social services division manager, will supervise the program under Jarrett's direction.
During the council debate, Mayor Robert G. Cormack, Councilman Randall Barb and Councilwoman Barbara Hayden expressed concern about the extent to which city government should get involved in an issue such as child care, which is often handled by the private sector.
Cormack said the city would be meddling if it stepped into the process when "the school (district) had the facility to house the students and the children were already in their care."
Barb, who joined Cormack in voting no, agreed.
"I support the (goal of the) program, but I don't think it's a good idea for the city to get involved," Barb said. "I think the (school) district can do a better job than we can. Adding the bureaucracy of a second agency would add extra costs with two staffs working on the same program, and is not the way to solve the problem."
Barb also questioned whether parents who already receive financial assistance from the school district--mostly in the form of subsidized lunches for their children--could afford to pay the child-care program's minimum $22 weekly fee. Barb said he feared that the city would have to pay some of the cost even though the program is supposed to be self-supported by tuition payments.
Council members Roy Paul and Diane Boggs both strongly supported the program.
"La Mirada has an existing program that does exactly what we're talking about with Downey," Paul said. "Several parents there are also financially needy and have found ways to pay for the services."
The council heard comments from several residents, all of whom were in favor of establishing the program. Several stressed the importance of making low-cost child care available.
"I have a lot of pride in this community," Planning Commissioner Joyce Lawrence said, urging the council to consider the needs of Downey's children and parents who cannot afford adequate child care.
Holding back tears, Lawrence noted that, according to the city's most recent budget review, "the larger portion of money goes to our safety. But the heart of our community should include people who don't have clout or a prominent say in city politics."
When Councilwoman Hayden heard from Cerone and others who faced child-care problems, she said she decided to "reaccess my decision against the after-school program." Hayden provided the swing vote to establish the program.
"It's about time we (Downey) take a chance," Cerone said. "There's another Kris Cerone out there. Some even worse off than I."