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Suffer the children: Catholic Church prepares to boot SOMA preschool off its land 

Wednesday, Dec 2 2009
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Arwa Kaddoura, a financial services worker who treks to an office downtown every day from her home in Glen Park, considers herself lucky. In a city with a chronic shortage of preschools — only 43 percent of kids with working parents have access to licensed child-care slots, according to a 2007 survey from the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network — she has found what she considers a gem of a place to send her 2-year-old daughter, Maya, during business hours. "I remember calling one place after another and being told, 'We have a wait list of 18 to 24 months,'" Kaddoura recalls of her early search for preschools.

Then she found Children's Village Child Development Center, a prekindergarten that sits on 10th Street in the shadow of the abandoned St. Joseph's parish hall. Children's Village is the kind of well-run social kaleidoscope of a school where many San Franciscans would love to send their kids. Roughly half the center's 106 children come from low-income families. Languages spoken by this eclectic bunch of tots include Cantonese, Hindi, Spanish, Tagalog, and Russian. The kids have access to cool developmental tools, such as giant stuffed building blocks, and a courtyard garden where they pick guavas in the winter.

The high caliber of Children's Village is no accident. Starting about 10 years ago, the preschool was targeted for investment by city officials seeking to expand child-care opportunities. It has benefited from roughly $1.3 million in government grants to upgrade its facilities, according to Candace Wong, director of the Child Care Facilities Fund at the Low Income Investment Fund, which partnered with the city to finance the improvements. That money helped bring the preschool up to building codes and into compliance with modern child-care standards. Now, it appears that this investment might come to naught.

That's because Catholic Charities CYO, the nonprofit that runs the program, is preparing to shut it down in 2010, citing demands from the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco — owner of the land Children's Village sits on — that the kids clear out. (Catholic Charities, while technically an arm of the archdiocese, operates as an independent organization.) In June, pointing to financial pressures and the church's determination to put the property up for sale, Catholic Charities politely informed families that Children's Village would soon become a ghost town. While Catholic Charities executive director Jeff Bialik says his agency would like to open another child-care center nearby, no property has been secured.

While it's far from clear that the church will be walking away with a windfall from taxpayers' investment — there's a good chance that developers would raze the current buildings, so the improved facilities wouldn't necessarily lead to a higher sale price — news of the closure has displeased the officials who poured cash into Children's Village in the hope that it would permanently expand the city's meager preschool offerings. "The city subsidized 80 percent of the buildout of the site," Wong said, noting that the lion's share of a loan from her organization to Catholic Charities had been repaid out of city coffers. "These investments are intended to be long-term, and we obviously hoped the child-care center would be there for many more years."

Nor has the closure announcement gone over well with the working parents who will soon be out of a place to send their kids. Some of them have formed a coalition, Friends of Children's Village, and are seeking certification as a charitable organization so they can start raising money to keep the center open. Megan Laurance, a Mission District resident with two children at the center, says a team of real estate, finance, and public relations professionals have come together to draft a plan for saving Children's Village — restoring the program to fiscal health and potentially negotiating a new lease with the archdiocese or a future developer, or even buying the property outright. "We have absolutely no doubt that, in time, we could do this on our own," she said. "There's got to be something we can do to prevent a really strongly needed service like child-care from being booted off the property."

But the parents say they've been stymied in their efforts by lack of cooperation from the archdiocese. In fact, according to Rafael Parra, a Children's Village parent who works as a building consultant to school districts, the group hasn't even been able to sit down with church officials to get a sense of their vision for the property's future, or how much they would want to sell for. The parents have appealed to Supervisor Chris Daly, in whose district Children's Village sits, and he has reached out to the archbishop — with nothing to show for it as SF Weekly went to press. "Our office is concerned about the potential loss ofz child-care slots," Daly aide April Veneracion said. "We have called the archdiocese, and they have not returned our calls."

The church's stated intention to sell the property isn't the only challenge facing Children's Village. Bialik, the Catholic Charities director, says the center has simply been unable to pay its bills in the face of rising labor costs. Another problem, he asserts, is that the center has drifted toward serving a more affluent group of families. "It's been difficult to fundraise for a program serving families that could theoretically pay more," he said. Tuition rates at Children's Village range from $1,120 per month for prekindergarteners to $1,450 for infants — on the low end of the scale for S.F. preschools, which can charge up to $2,000 per month. (As part of their plan to make the center solvent, Laurance says the better-off parents are willing to accept tuition hikes.)

Archdiocese spokesman Maurice Healy says the Catholic Church has done its share over the years to keep Children's Village open. Since 2000, when the center opened, the archdiocese has rented Catholic Charities the land and buildings at a nominal rent of $1, he notes: "We've done everything we can to accommodate that facility." Yet parents still complain that the most important accommodation they're now seeking — a direct line of communication to the archdiocese in order to better understand how they can save Children's Village — isn't forthcoming. Healy says church real-estate officials would like to negotiate directly with Catholic Charities, rather than an independent group of parents. But this stance has put the parents at an impasse. "We really need to have the archdiocese sit at the other side of the table," Parra said.

Whether that will happen, even with nudging from Daly, remains to be seen. In the meantime, one of Daly's would-be successors, SOMA activist and entertainment commissioner Jim Meko, takes a sour view of church officials' unwillingness to meet with parents. "It's really funny. This comes up right at Christmastime," Meko said. "Goddamn. They are cold-hearted businessmen. There's no getting around that."

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Peter Jamison

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