Out In the Cold

Photos by Keith MayLike the French, county school officials believe the more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider last fall's announcement that the county Department of Education would privatize its preschool program for 1,000 low-income kids. Writing in the conservative Orange County Register in September, school board member Ken Williams hailed the move as a revolutionary step to save money and drive kids back into their homes, where they belong. "Why should the government take the most vulnerable of society and put them in government institutions?" Williams wrote.

But the plan to privatize 13 preschool sites produced few celebrations. School supporters packed board meetings, and angry demonstrators rallied outside the department's Costa Mesa offices. Surprised by the reaction, Williams and his colleagues did an about-face, arguing that the revolution was not a revolution, that the kids and their parents would see virtually no change in the program after the Dec. 16, 2000, transition. In a Nov. 24, 2000, letter to the Weekly, Williams predicted that the two companies invited to take over the taxpayer-funded preschools —Campbell, California-based Child Development Inc. (CDI) and Orange-based Child's Pace Inc.—would change nothing. "They will begin shortly the operations of all child-care programs in the same physical facilities and hopefully with all the same staff," Williams wrote.

The key word was "hopefully." Williams' hope—or rather promise—was that private companies would run the county program more efficiently than the county itself. Critics reasonably predicted that those efficiencies would be worked out in lower teacher pay. They were right. On Dec. 16, 2000, county teachers were fired as a formality and were then offered their old jobs at much lower pay—as little as 50 percent less. Many of the county's oldest and most experienced teachers left or are seeking other work while performing their jobs for much less money.

"They said it was going to be a smooth transition, but . . . when children walked in the next day, they saw some of the same people, but not all," said Karen Rokosz, who worked for the county education department for 11 years, most recently at the Fountain Valley Child Development Center. She's now unemployed.

CDI project coordinator Wendi Maheney claimed that most of the faces are the same. Workers laid off after the transition account for between 90 percent and 95 percent of CDI's workforce at the 10 child-care centers it now runs, she said. She added that most of the rehires are teachers "really excited to be there."

According to Maheney, CDI pays its assistant teachers and teachers between $7.75 per hour and $13.50 per hour. That's competitive in the private sector, but Maheney admits it's far lower than the salaries earned by teachers laid off in December, many of whom were experienced veterans earning $25 per hour. Thanks in part to the bottom-line realities of private-sector work, Maheney acknowledged that "turnover is a major issue confronting CDI." She said most employees stay with CDI for just one or two years.

By comparison, the county program was staffed by many longtime teachers. Patty Donovan put in 25 years with the county but left because Child's Pace and CDI offered wages too low to support her family. "A lot of people . . . had to take other jobs or go on unemployment just to survive," she said. "In our field, it is very difficult to get a wage comparable to what we were earning."

Another 25-year veteran, Joanna Lou Linden, was laid off from her job at the Orange center. Linden turns 70 this month and says she hopes to be working again. "I thought my job with the county would be there forever," she said.

A few people stayed on, even when told their paychecks would be more modest. Michael Perez, now a site supervisor at Child's Pace Cerritos, took a 10 percent pay cut and lost his benefits to keep his old job but says he has few regrets. "I stayed on because I live in the community where I work, and I felt an obligation to work with the families I had been working with," he explained. "I jumped on it." His wife and fellow teacher, Loria Perez, made the jump with him.

A former teacher who requested anonymity said privatization will save money but will otherwise prove a failure. "These companies came in and did a cut-rate child-care program—both CDI and Child's Pace," she charged. "They cut some really qualified people out of the program. This was an unnecessary situation. It did not need to happen."

"Private child care is a different profession than what the county employees were doing," CDI's Maheney acknowledged. "I feel bad for folks who feel that the privatization didn't work out well for them. Some of those teachers made $25 per hour. We cannot afford to pay that and stay as a nonprofit agency. We would not have been able to accept the state's contract and serve those families."


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