Providers, parents on edge
The issue is an especially emotional one in Fairfax. It has prompted impassioned objections from providers who say the change will further squeeze their modest businesses, as well as from parents who cringe at the thought of leaving family day cares that they have come to trust and that tend to be more affordable and flexible than corporate centers. Some parents said they fear they would not be able to find new care at all, because shortages are so bad that many providers have waiting lists of more than a year.
The county has responded by implementing a grace period for existing day cares that it says will last well into next year, and members of the Board of Supervisors have promised to explore longer-lasting solutions, including increasing per-home limits and reducing the cost and complexity of getting a special permit.
But that has not calmed some parents, who worry that they will be forced to look for new day-care options.
Finding a flexible, trustworthy provider was so hard for Springfield mother Felicia Kleinfelt that when she and her husband recently decided to buy a home, they chose to stay in Springfield over a more affordable area, largely because they did not want to face looking for new child care for their 2-year-old and 4-year-old.
As a technical writer, Kleinfelt works varying hours and sometimes needs day care only 10 or 15 hours a week. She is afraid that would make her children the first at their day care to be cut.
“That’s just the reality,” she said.
To draw attention to the issue, Fairfax day cares organized phone-call and letter-writing campaigns and showed up en masse at a June supervisors meeting.
Three board members, led by Chairman Sharon Bulova (D), responded by recommending the grace period to allow providers time to apply for special permits for up to 10 children and reduce their enrollment through attrition. They also asked county staffers to draft an amended zoning ordinance that would raise the special-permit limit to 12, the same number allowed under state regulations.
But at a packed town hall meeting last week, providers contended that those steps will not be enough. They told horror stories that they had heard from colleagues who have tried for a special permit; how the application and requirements are so confusing that some just gave up; how the fee alone is $1,100; and how some expended months of effort only to be denied a permit because a single neighbor showed up at their public hearing before the zoning board to complain about the extra traffic.
Many providers called for the county to raise the limit for day cares without a special permit from seven children to 10 or 12, which would allow many providers to avoid a county review.
Among those who spoke was Malini Cunje, who has been running a day care out of her home near Vienna for more than a decade. Her enrollment is 12. She said in an interview that she typically gets three calls a day from parents asking to be added to her waiting list, which she estimated is up to a year and a half long. It is not unusual for prospective parents to add their names before they are expecting a child, she said.
“If this isn’t solved, it’s going to make things a lot worse,” she said.
County officials said at the town hall meeting that they are working to make the special permit process less confusing and possibly less costly. They also said they are confident that the Board of Supervisors ultimately will support increasing the number of children allowed under a special permit in single-family homes from 10 to 12.
But in interviews later, several supervisors expressed hesitation about raising the limit for those without a permit.
Final decisions by the board probably will come early next year.
In the meantime, Gallier, the Burke provider, said she is trying to stay optimistic about a solution.
“I’m feeling confident,” she said. “But maybe it’s just that I want it so much, I’m not even letting myself think about the alternative.”