The center is nearing its dying day. Trash bags stuffed with dress-up clothes are stacked by boxes of toys and puzzles that may never touch another child's hands.
Cypress College Children's Center is closing Wednesday, and the people most affected can't figure out why. Kids 2 to 6 don't understand what a state budget shortfall is. This one is $38 billion, and some of the kids can't even count to 20.
The Cypress center may be the first community college child-care program sacrificed to a budget gap, said the chancellor's office for the California Community Colleges. Budget decisions already have axed class offerings, staff members and entire degree programs at the system's 108 schools.
Though cuts affecting students are painful, forfeiting child care might be one of the toughest choices to make. Bay Area community college officials have lobbied against a reduction in state subsidies that would force their child-care centers to close. Many colleges cut staff salaries, service hours and subsidies of students' fees first.
The process and its impact represent the tug-of-war that colleges could face if budget holes widen after the fiscal year's end, which was Monday. College officials note that the center served few student-parents -- about 30 -- compared with total campus enrollment of 15,000. But those parents say the closure slices far deeper than any canceled class.
Gigi Uvidia, a 32-year-old Cypress nursing student, tries to explain to her three daughters: You're going to a new school. Only she can't find one for 2-year-old Becky -- the Head Start program that Becky's 4-year-old twin sisters attend won't take kids that young.
Her husband, a computer specialist, juggled his schedule to stay home in the morning. She cut back on summer classes, just in case a good day-care place can't be found. With Becky giggling nearby, Uvidia clenched her fists in frustration. "Who is our country going to be run by? The elite who can afford private education?"
This academic year, the Cypress center served 50 children in two programs: one for kids who qualified for Head Start, the other primarily for the children of Cypress students. Many of the spots were partly financed by grants; students without subsidies paid about $100 a week.
On this final week, 10 kids are left to nibble on breakfast and lunch, cradle baby dolls and recite their ABCs.
The staff of nine had high hopes for the academic year: In March 2002, voters had approved a tax on themselves for $5 million in bonds to build a new center. But by December, the college was forced to trim 8% from its nearly $40-million budget. Officials began to talk of shaving services few students used.
Other colleges were in a similar quandary: Would classes or services be saved? In the Bay Area, several colleges lobbied tirelessly to protect subsidies that would keep its child-care centers open.
But De Anza College in Cupertino, for example, usually has a waiting list of 300 names for 120 places. The 26,000-student college also has a child-care training program connected to its center. Cypress had neither; it wasn't even filled to its 75-child capacity.
The center, said Marc Posner, a spokesman for Cypress College, was running a $30,000-a-year deficit on its $355,000 budget -- a gap the college had to fill. Officials estimated that the shortage could nearly triple in three years. With such a small proportion of Cypress students using the facility, keeping it open didn't make sense, he said.
In March, staff members at Cypress heard their jobs were in jeopardy from colleagues at Fullerton College, the other campus in the North Orange County Community College District. They said they weren't officially notified until April.
The spring semester ended with a May 13 board vote to ax the program. Twenty-five district employees picketed outside. "We did get stabbed in the back -- that's how we feel," said Gail Meinert, a child-care teacher at Cypress for nearly two decades.
Meinert, whom the kids call Miss Gail, pointed to letters parents sent to the district board. One mother wrote, "I am fearful once this Child Care Center closes [that] I myself will have to discontinue classes at Cypress College, for I am a single parent and can not afford to put my children into another day-care."
Norma "Vanessa" Vides has similar fears. When the 24-year-old mother of two opened the letter, dated May 23, that told of the closure, "I was like, 'Uh-oh. This has gotta be a dream. This isn't true.' "
The Honduran native enrolled at Cypress because she could patch together a schedule of school and work with Head Start care for her oldest, 5-year-old Kathy Mejia.
Kathy's 1-year-old sister, Caroline Vides, will eventually join her at a center at Cerritos College, where Vides will take classes. She lives from check to check already, renting a room and wearing clothes she bought in high school.
The center's staff said that in the fall, most of them will go to Fullerton College, which has a child-care building and an education program that feeds into it.
Last week at Cypress, it was education as usual: counting games and nap time.
On Thursday, they took a trip to Knott's Berry Farm. Later that night, there was an "open house tribute" in the campus dining room, promoted with a flier stating:
"Cypress College Children's Center: 1975-2003."
One staffer said it looked like something you'd see at a funeral.