City imposes needless rule on child care

We were distressed by the travails of an island pre-school operator (reported in last Saturday’s edition) who is now looking at her third location in a little over a year.

Day care, after all, is a vital necessity in a world where more than half of parents work – it’s particularly critical to single mothers. So it seems incumbent on the city to make matters as easy as possible for day-care providers.

The problem outlined in Saturday’s story appears to be a provision of the city code that draws a distinction between “family” and “child” care centers. “Family day care” is caring for 12 or fewer children without educational offerings. “Child day-care centers” are those facilities with more than 12 kids, as well as any facility that includes an educational component like a school.

The two types of facilities receive sharply different treatment. “Family” centers must be in the provider’s home, and are permitted uses in island residential areas. “Child” facilities are permitted uses only in commercial areas, and in general may not be in the owner’s home.

What seems to have caused problems for some island operators has been efforts to either care for more than 12 kids or to include educational offerings in the provider’s own home, which take the facility out of the “family” and into the “child” category, and requires the operator to get a conditional-use permit, a time-consuming process that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

We don’t doubt that at some point, facilities that house children reach a scale where they become incompatible with a residential neighborhood. But the line drawn by the city code makes little sense. Why should educational offerings – which certainly seem like a fine recommendation for such centers – tip an operation into the “child” category, and banish the facility from residential areas? How does teaching kids their ABCs rather than parking them in front of a television impact the neighbors?

Nor does the numerical cutoff of 12 students make much sense. Fire codes, off-street parking requirements and state licensing requirements apply to “family” as well as to “child” centers, rules that will themselves limit enrollments.

What makes sense to us is to categorize child-care facilities by their domiciles. Call those housed in single-family homes – owned or rented – “residential,” and allow them in residential neighborhoods, subject to the same rules that now apply to “family” facilities. Those rules include requirements for state licensing, fire and health inspections, limited signage and hours of operation – all adequate to protect both the kids and the neighborhood.

Day care is hard enough on providers, kids and parents. There’s no reason for the city to make it harder.

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