Parents are objecting to what they describe as a lack of transparency in the Palo Alto Unified School District's decision making after school administrators decided to take space away from a local nonprofit child care provider and give it to a national company — a decision that was reversed this week in the face of fierce opposition.
Palo Alto Unified planned to reduce the space provided to Palo Alto Community Child Care (PACCC) on local elementary school campuses in favor of Right At School. When parents heard last week that PACCC would stop serving fourth and fifth graders in the fall, many objected and called on the district to restore the nonprofit's current space allocation.
Parents also criticized Superintendent Don Austin for disparaging statements he made about PACCC during a panel discussion he participated in with other superintendents, which was video-recorded. Among his comments, he said he couldn't replace PACCC with Right At School because it wasn't "politically" feasible.
The school district ultimately acquiesced and announced on Monday, May 9, that PACCC would maintain its facilities next school year. The nonprofit has confirmed it will continue to serve students through fifth grade. Kid's Choice, another local provider that operates at Lucille M. Nixon Elementary School, will still lose one of the three rooms that it currently has, program staff told the Weekly. District staff say the third space was only a temporary addition during the pandemic.
Parents continue to have concerns and questions about district administrators' reasoning for wanting to reduce PACCC's space, why parents weren't consulted and whether the changes might still move ahead in the future.
"These opaque decision-making processes lack transparency," Daralisa Kelley told the school board at its May 10 meeting. "I'm a working parent — we need added resources, not taking them away."
Austin acknowledged the concerns with the way the planned changes were rolled out but said that the intent was pure and that the district is focused on increasing access to services for all students, including those from lower-income backgrounds.
"We value the contributions of our three providers and we also value the feelings of our families," Austin said at the school board meeting. "We could have handled some things differently this year and I'm going to take full responsibility for that. At the end of the day, it's only me. The intent, however, has been lost in the distractions."
Both before- and after-school care should be available without waiting lists and rates should be as affordable as possible, including free care for lower-income families, Austin said.
PACCC offers after-school "kids' clubs" at all PAUSD elementary schools except Nixon, where Kids Choice runs an after-school program. Right at School currently operates at 11 Palo Alto school sites, offering both before- and after-school care, a company representative said.
The district's explanations of its reasoning haven't satisfied some parents, who emailed the district and turned out to speak to the Board of Education on Tuesday.
Kelda Jamison, who has two children participating in Kids Choice at Nixon, told the Weekly that she's fully onboard with the district's attempts to improve equity but doesn't understand why that means prioritizing a national provider at the expense of local groups.
"(It) felt like fronting goals that almost all of us align ourselves with and will stand by as cover for pretty unclear decision-making and shoddy execution and communication," Jamison said. "That was very frustrating and very dismaying."
Right At School does offer lower rates than PACCC and Kids Choice, including a 50% discount for any students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Additional subsidies can make care free for some families and over 60% of the more than 300 students Right at School currently serves in Palo Alto receive a subsidy of at least 50%, spokesperson Adam Case told the Weekly.
PACCC, for its part, stated in a May 6 email to parents that it offers scholarships and manages the state, city and PACCC subsidy programs, serving 72 district students through the programs this school year. The letter from Executive Director Lee Pfab also stated that the provider would be able to expand enrollment in the coming school year.
Due to licensing requirements, PACCC currently only serves subsidized families on three campuses, Assistant Superintendent Yolanda Conaway told the Weekly.
"We had one goal … to provide access to affordable child care for all and that meant we had to take a hard look at our existing offerings and make some tough choices," Conaway wrote in a statement to the Weekly. "We could not in good conscious uphold our commitment to equity and leave this very obvious and impactful inequity standing untouched."
Jamison and other parents questioned whether the district had given Kids Choice and PACCC the chance to make changes and why expanding Right At School had to come at the cost of the existing providers.
Austin declined a request for an interview for this article but said in texts and an email that Right At School's cost and before-school care offerings are important factors for some families. He referred questions to Conaway.
In an interview, Conaway stressed that the district is committed to meeting the needs of families at a variety of income levels and said that the goal was to fill gaps in existing services. However, Conaway, who oversees equity and student services, said she isn't responsible for space allocation decisions and directed those questions back to the superintendent, who declined to answer those questions from the Weekly.
PACCC currently has two portables on each campus, while Right At School has a single classroom at each school, which it sometimes shares with other programs, Conaway told the Weekly after this article was initially published.The plan was to provide each provider with a single portable next year, to balance things out, Conaway said. Right At School's licensing meant it could have potentially expanded to additional spaces if there was demand. PACCC has more specific requirements, limiting the types of rooms it can occupy, Conaway said.
Now, PACC will retain its two portables next year and the district will find room for Right at School to have its own dedicated space on each campus, Conaway said.
Escondido Elementary School parent Sherri Fujieda told the Weekly that when she first heard PACCC was planning to stop serving fourth and fifth graders next school year, she was shocked and worried about how she would find another after school program for her son, who is currently in fourth grade.
"I was sad and panicked because we've been relying on ... PACCC since the kids were very little," Fujieda said. "I love them; the kids love them."
Ohlone Elementary School parent Sarah Parikh said she cried when she heard that older kids would no longer receive care from PACCC. Parikh said her second and fourth grade children have both loved their experiences with PACCC and that they often don't want to leave when she comes to pick them up.
"They really enjoy being there and I think that just speaks volumes," Parikh said. "They're not feeling like it's just babysitting. Instead it's this wonderful thing that they get to experience."
Adding to the heat and suspicions of district administrators' motivations, parents raised particular objections to comments that Austin made about PACCC in a now-deleted video that parents shared with the Weekly. In the video, Austin speaks about child care options as part of a panel with other superintendents that appears to be facilitated by Right At School.
In response to a question from an audience member about how to approach existing relationships with community providers, Austin spoke disparagingly about PACCC's services.
"It's called Palo Alto Community Child Care, so that was pretty easy to get rid of," Austin said, seemingly sarcastically. "They had everything in their title except for 'We love your kids and we've been here for a long time.'"
He told the audience that PACCC had waitlists, couldn't keep up with demand and provides no scholarships, a claim Pfab contests. The pandemic, he said, gave the district an opportunity to add Right At School as a provider.
"If we had a winner-take-all, it would be Right At School, hands down — but politically, I couldn't do that," Austin said.
He added that districts need to consider how they'll make changes when they have longtime providers that "haven't given you that really compelling, egregious reason to make the change — they've just been bumping along."
Parents told the Weekly that they found Austin's critical comments upsetting, and they also raised questions about Austin's relationship with Right At School and whether he has any conflict of interest.
In a text, Austin told the Weekly that he apologized to PACCC for his "casual comments," but declined to comment further on the video.
Right At School initially posted the video because it showed leading superintendents speaking about the quality and impact of its programs but took the video down to avoid causing further issues, Case said in an interview.
According to Case, Right At School began serving Palo Alto students during the pandemic and currently operates at 11 elementary schools, serving roughly 325 students. The district planned to expand Right At School's space, but the group will now maintain its current operations next school year, Case said.
"Our mission is to serve as many families as we can, to bring these great quality programs, because we know the impact that they have on families, that they have on students," Case said.
PACCC was founded in 1974 and has served students in Palo Alto since. It currently offers after school kids' clubs at 11 PAUSD elementary schools, as well as care for younger kids at various community sites.
PACCC's Pfab declined an interview request from the Weekly but emailed a statement.
"It is PACCC's desire to maintain our historic relationships and programming for PAUSD and Palo Alto families," Pfab said in the statement. "PACCC and PAUSD continue communications regarding concerns brought forward by families. We believe the positive relationship between PACCC and PAUSD will lead us to a solution that meet(s) the needs of Palo Alto families, PAUSD and PACCC."
Some parents have raised concerns about the fact that the district has only agreed to extend PACCC's current facilities set-up for a single year. In an email to PACCC families that a parent shared with the Weekly, Pfab wrote that her group "has requested a multi-year lease beyond the 2022-2023 school year." According to Austin, all three child care providers will only have a single-year deal for next school year.
There also have been questions about whether the district's plans for Kids Choice, which operates at Nixon Elementary School, will stand. Kids Choice administrators Nery Barrios and Lorene Scatena wrote in an emailed statement that their program is losing one of three rooms that it currently rents. The third room was added two years ago to help accommodate a long waitlist, Barrios and Scatena said. According to Conaway, the third space was a temporary addition during the pandemic to accommodate social distancing requirements.
"We are heartbroken by this decision and hope the district will reconsider so we can continue caring for these kids and their families with whom we have developed deep and trusting relationships," Barrios and Scatena wrote.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with additional information about the child care providers with respect to subsidized care and space allocations on the school campuses, as well as the district's goals for its child care program. This information was provided by the district and Right At School after the initial article was published.