The defunding of UCR’s Early Childhood Services: Part I

Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER
Jimmy Lai/HIGHLANDER

Within the next week, teachers involved with UC Riverside’s Early Childhood Services (ECS) will hear Chancellor Kim Wilcox’s final decision on whether the university will continue to fund the services provided by the center, or continue to lay off teachers. Negotiations have been in the workings since June.

About 100 students and parents met in June 2016 to discuss how the ECS center would remedy the financial deficit that they had been running for several years. Vice Chancellor of Business and Administrative Services Ron Coley was at the meeting, along with Renee Jacobs, the executive director of ECS.

There were several options discussed at this meeting, the most notable being potentially outsourcing the services to other child care services outside the university. Other options included raising the rates for the services as well as laying off teachers, while others entailed the closure of the ECS center altogether. However, Jacobs decided to keep the center running for a temporary three months, but the possibility of laying off teachers still remained. In an interview, Crystal Godoy, a lead teacher who has been part of the ECS for five years, suggested that these two options, namely the closure and outsourcing of the ECS, were scare tactics, and questioned whether Jacobs had the authority and jurisdiction to make that decision. Tanya Akel, serving the UC-wide union known as Teamsters Local 2010 as regional director of Southern California, reiterated Coley’s point on how closing and outsourcing the ECS were not viable options for the university. At the end of the meeting back in June, history Professor Jennifer Hughes, chair of the Committee on Faculty Welfare who was also present at the meeting, suggested that the chancellor give the teachers and parents a six-month postponement on the layoffs, a time during which both groups could work out solutions to decide what cuts to make. This timeline for negotiations was then reduced to three months by Chancellor Wilcox due to “the criticality of this issue,” according to Coley.

Godoy further argues that the firing of teachers does not have a significant impact in narrowing the financial deficit that the ECS is currently experiencing. She explained that losing the 10 teachers on the layoff list would save about $60,000, which is only a small part of the around $1 million deficit that the center runs annually. For Godoy, this decision doesn’t make sense financially, saying, “They are going to lose 10 quality teachers, hire 10 teacher assistants and save $60,000.” Latasha Rowley Jackson, an organizer for the union Teamsters 2010, who also represents the teachers, explained UCR administration’s reasoning, saying that this proposal would save the university money in terms of the health insurance costs used for seasoned teachers who have families. “To insure a teacher that has a family with kids is different than a teacher assistant who is probably younger with no kids,” explained Jackson. The proposal claims that the savings from the decrease in health insurance costs would make up the difference in the $60,000.

With regards to the university saving money through the lessened healthcare costs, Godoy rebutted, “So because we are dedicated employees, and happen to have children, we’re expendable? Does that sound right to you?”

Akel explained how early child development programs are generally not meant to be profitable. “It’s expensive because you need a certain number of teachers per child, and the fees that the parents pay do not cover that cost because otherwise it would be completely unaffordable, no one would go … most people don’t realize that. Any quality education takes parents donating, grants, subsidies, support from other places,” said Akel.

This outright defunding of the ECS has even garnered the attention of California Assemblymember Jose Medina, who represents the 61st District that encompasses Riverside County. In a letter to Vice Chancellor Coley written on August 8, 2016, Medina explained his concern over the defunding and elimination of the 10 full-time teachers, saying, “While I recognize that this decision was made to stabilize financial models and address an ongoing deficit, I urge you to rethink this plan as it will have a number of negative consequences to the university and the surrounding community.”

As the Chair of the Assembly of Higher Education, Medina, in his letter, stressed the importance of maintaining the presence of the ECS on campus, stating how it “is only one of only three centers in Riverside with accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children,” an organization established in 1926 with over 60,000 members, aimed at promoting high-quality early learning for all young children. Medina also echoed concerns about the demotion of the current Lead Teachers, saying that the lower child assistant job positions “are well below their current talent, education and salary.” He added that lowering rank of these Lead Teachers has the potential to “lead to a lack of quality education for children during the most important developmental period of their lives.”

According to Jackson’s knowledge, Vice Chancellor Coley has not responded to Medina’s letter and requests.

One of the solutions that Coley and Wilcox are offering is the demotion of several teachers from Teacher II positions to classroom assistants, which, according to Akel, would be a significant reduction in salary from $23 per hour to $16 per hour. There is currently a hierarchy of teachers within the ECS, all of whom have different responsibilities when it comes to child care. There are the entry-level positions known as classroom assistants, followed by the more senior positions of Teacher I and Teacher II, which are assigned to more qualified teachers with bachelor degrees and certificates in childhood education.  As a result, the responsibilities of these types of teachers are different, where classroom assistants have duties that entail relatively simple tasks such as wiping noses, cleaning toddlers and changing their diapers, compared to the Teacher I and Teacher II positions that entails a more invested role in the child’s development. These duties include parent conferences, daily reports, lesson plans and teaching. And, as Akel put it, when it comes to the child care development profession that is largely comprised of women, these teachers “have a crucial role in society, yet they aren’t paid adequately, and the university is buying into that sexist, capitalist, profit-driven model by laying off teachers that have been there for many years.”

Jackson pointed out that the new teachers who would be supplanting the experienced teachers would be joining the ECS at the entry-level positions as classroom assistant. This new situation, for Ira Campos, a Teacher I at the ECS for the past seven years who is currently not on the layoff list, “would be a big burden” since she would have to take care of 24 toddlers with a classroom assistant, who, at best, could help with minimal needs of the kids.

“Can I do the work? Sure. Will it be quality? I’ll try my best. But how can you replace them?” asked Campos in reference to the senior teachers that will be replaced at the ECS. “It’s a team, and we’re going to feel it.”

The bulk of the funding for the ECS, Jackson explained, comes from grants and enrollment fees, while only a small percentage of the funding comes from students via tuition charges. And while Jacobs has been writing grants in an effort to acquire additional revenue, according to Jackson, it hasn’t been enough to cover the deficit. Jackson stated that Jacobs has been helping the ECS financially over the past two years, and wanted to provide her with some more time to lessen the deficit. However, as Jackson put it, “The Chancellor was unwilling to cover the costs, so this is where we’re at.” Additionally, a new facility, which doubled the size of the ECS, was opened in the end of 2009 in an effort to cater to the high demand for the services. This, however, occurred at the same time as the financial crisis of 2007-2009, and according to Janice Bottener, a preschool Teacher II in the ECS for the past seven years, the ECS center never fully recovered from this expansion that was met with a decreased demand.

Akel pointed out how important it is to have a child care center on campus, a clear contrast to how Chancellor Wilcox views the issue, saying, “The former chancellor (Timothy P. White) saw how important it was to have a high quality program here on campus because it allows low income students to have a safe and quality place for their children.”

In terms of the teaching and care, the ECS has tried to maintain its standards and quality for its toddlers and kids. “Classrooms are closed intermittently over the past year based on enrollment,” explained Godoy. However, she emphasized the continual effort on part of the teachers to provide the best quality education, saying, “It’s our job to keep the quality inside the classroom. As difficult as things can be, we understand that our job is to take care of the children — and we do it to the best of our ability.”

However, the layoffs are viewed as a small solution to a much bigger problem, where the defunding of the ECS has caused the teacher-to-student ratios within classrooms to change. According to Campos, the ratios in preschool classrooms here at the ECS center have shifted from 8:1 to 10:1. There are fixed ratios mandated by California Law, as Akel explained, saying, “To provide quality child care, you have to have a certain number of teachers per student — we don’t get to put 30 or 40 students with one teacher.”

Godoy talked about shared governance, where “The parents have a right to know what’s happening at the center, and to also be consulted in terms of the finances, teacher layoffs — all those things are supposed to be shared with the parents prior to anything being implemented, and that was negated during this whole proceeding … it never happened until after the fact, until the wheels were already in motion.” She further cited this violation as a reason for the three month-long stay of layoffs, where Vice Chancellor Coley would allow for parents and faculty to both discuss and create solutions to ameliorate the ECS’s deficit before Chancellor Wilcox decided whether to accept said solutions, or continue laying off teachers.

“There’s been many studies that show that children of low-income parents that go to a quality child care program actually have higher rates of completing college,” said Akel. She continued, saying, “If the goal of the university is to increase access for future generations to go to college, then that’s another goal that the child care center provides.”

“When you take out the human component of what child care is all about, that’s all you end up with — a piece of paper. And that’s not what child care is about. Child care is about taking care of children, providing care at the most critical point of their lives,” said Godoy. When asked about her future plans if she gets laid off, she said, “This is my second time being let go for making too much money, and I love the field, so I keep fighting and fighting. But eventually, I’m going to have to think about my own children, and provide for them, and not think about what I love to do for a job.”

To express her frustration with the current negotiations, Bottener wrote a letter to Chancellor Wilcox. In her letter, she wrote, “I love my job and the children in my class more than you can imagine, but I also need to eat and pay my bills, not to mention I am the one in my family that carries the UC health insurance … I never expected, working for UCR, to one day be demoted in my job! I was a classroom assistant when I first started my teaching career in 1980. I have made it my life goal to move forwards not backwards … please consider the young children, the students, staff and faculty we serve and find a way to save us teachers.” Bottener later said that Wilcox failed to reply, but forwarded it to Coley, whose response did little to quell her concerns.  

“This is what we’ve had to deal with,” said Bottener, tearfully. “It hurts.”

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