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Regional childcare centres remain on the block

Region of Waterloo

Having made their case to council, the parents of children in regional childcare centres must now wait to discover if their appeals were enough to reverse a recommendation to close the facilities.

A consultant’s report calls for the region to stop providing childcare services directly – the municipality runs five centres, including one in Elmira – as a cost-saving measure to stem an expected $25-million shortfall in the 2021 budget. Closing the centres is expected to save $6.8 million.

Current users were not amused, giving councillors an earful during a videoconference meeting November 18.

“Just when 2020 couldn’t get worse, it did,” said Brennan Bell of Kitchener, expressing a common sentiment of parents who felt blindsided by news of the closure.

He said cutting the children’s centres and staff is a difficult concept to accept, noting the region’s assurances that other daycare spaces will be available don’t match his and other parents’ experience – vacancies are rare.

Something he and others cannot get their heads around and while he has been hearing from council that there is vacancy in the area, that has not been his experience.

Others such Julie Bilodeau noted the timing was particularly bad, another blow to already hard-pressed women.

“At a time when all levels of government agree that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic through job and wage losses, that women are more likely to be in more precarious service related employment that don’t allow for the privilege of working from home. Due to the persistent wage gap, women are more likely than men to exit the workforce due to a lack of childcare, and the idea of reducing any amount of childcare is unconscionable,” Bilodeau told councillors.

In making the case to keep the centres open, parents are hoping to duplicate a successful 2015 campaign when a similar report recommended closures. This time may be different, however, when the recommendations are discussed by councillors December 2.

Despite a successful campaign five years ago when parents campaigned and worked together for a month to ensure that the centres would remain open after the same recommendation came down from a report done by an outside firm, it seems like those voices may be falling on deaf ears as council may still be looking to shutdown the centres.

Since the report was released, councillors have stressed its assertions that the region is meant to be the service manager for childcare, not a provider. They also push the fact that only 1.9 per cent of the childcare spaces in the region are provided by the five centres that consume 10 per cent of child services budget.

Countering that argument was parent Aine Leadbetter, who stressed that the quality of the childcare programs at the regional centres exceeds what is available at other facilities. Having had her kids attend Christopher Children’s Centre, the regional centre in Cambridge, she said she knows firsthand the importance of good childcare and the impact it has on children.

“My personal experience with our regions care [centres], we had experience with homecare, we had experience with private daycare centres, and we ended up a Christopher Children’s Centre. You’ve heard a lot of people speak today to the quality of childcare that’s provided in our region’s centres, and I just wanted to echo that so very strongly. They are very much more than childcare centres. I would go farther to say that they’re really community hubs,” she said. “Our experience with Christopher Children’s Centre was that it really was our community.”

While some councillors such as Wellesley Mayor Joe Nowak have yet to make a decision about the centres’ fate, others such as Woolwich Mayor Sandy Shantz and Coun. Michael Harris are sticking to their guns despite the heartfelt pleas from parents in the community.

Harris says he has no plans to change his vote and believes closing the centres is the right decision as the region is under no obligation to provide the service, adding he understands the public’s concerns because he is a father himself to kids who went through the childcare system.

“I understand and sympathize with the parents who presented, and they all made compelling presentations, however… this is the second time the region has looked at this. As a regional council, we are supporting less than 200 kids in five centres to the tune of $1 million a year out of the tax revenue. This is something that, frankly, the regional government is not mandated to do and should focus on being the system service manager and not an operator of childcare centres in the region,” said Harris.

He notes there is potential for the creation of 500 new childcare spaces in the region in addition to the existing 200 spaces being moved to other centres, in part financed by the money saved by the closures.

Following the online meeting, Shantz said she was unlikely swayed by the arguments, but added she hopes parents are provided with more information about what will happen following the closures. Four of the centres may be on the block by mid-2021, while the Elmira service is likely to remain open for another year under terms of the region’s contract with the school board.

Nowak said he has always been an advocate for childcare, sitting on the board when a centre was built in the Wellesley area, and he will be waiting to hear what comes from the meeting next week before he decides how he will cast his vote on December 2.

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