If there had been enough money in ts treasury for champagne, there's no doubt someone at the Seven Corners Day Care Center would have broken it out this Monday.
As it was, the teachers and aides, were happy just to learn that their paychecks wouldn't bounce this week and their jobs were safe for another three months.
"We're jubilant, just delighted," said Jim Burke, who has taught at the center three years and who spent most of last week looking for a new job. This week, he is back where he wants to be, teaching the 49 kids at Seven Corners, a private non-profit center in the basement of the First Christian Church in Falls Church.
Seven Corners, according to teachers and staff members, has been teetering on the brink of financial disaster for several years.
Last week it almost toppled.
When Norman Laird, treasurer of the Seven Corners Center, examined the books earlier this month, he determined the day care center was finished. Its meager bank account was exhausted, federal withholding taxes were overdue and the payroll could not be met after Oct. 24 -- tomorrow.
Two weeks ago the board of directors met, studied the gloomy financial outlook and voted to close the center after 10 years of providing low-cost child care to working parents with low and moderate incomes.
Parents scrambled to find other care for their children, while staff members began looking for new jobs and applying for unemployment compensation.
But suddenly, at an emergency meeting last weekend with county officials and the Seven Corners board, county Supervisor Tom Davis (R-Mason) looked at the center's figures and found a way to bail it out.
Davis was able to persuade County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert and his fellow supervisors to advance the center about $4,200 -- enough to keep it afloat until Jan. 1. If, despite the aid, the center must close, the county will not attempt to collect on the debt.
"What we've done is bought ourselves three months," Davis said earlier this week. "We have time to study the center and do some fund-raising.
"I really think there is some money available out there," Davis said confidently.
The events leading up to the crisis at Seven Corners are complex but not unique. Directors of the 14 non-profit day care centers in the county insist that similar problems plague all the non-profit facilities, and even some centers that are run strictly for profit.
As word of Seven Corners' potential closing spread across the county, an atmosphere of panic set in at other day care centers. The reaction was simple and immediate: If it can happen to them, it can happen to us.
"The thing is, it could very easily happen to us," said Delores Casseen, director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Day Care Center in Alexandria. "It's not an isolated case at all."
Day care directors say at least two key factors frequently force them into severe financial difficulty:
State and federal regulations that drive up the costs of child care.
Lack of community support.
At Seven Corners, for instance, federal regulations require four teachers and four aides for the 49 children, and the center must serve two meals and a snack each day. Salaries, including the $14,400 paid the center director, account for $92,200 of the $128,560 budget. Food costs are $21,500 a year. Other services, such as space for the center, utilities and maintenance, are donated by the church. Center officials estimate it costs $2,500 a year to care for one child.
Like many day care centers, Seven Corners receives both federal and county funds. About a third of its costs are covered by federal Title XX funds and Department of Agriculture payments, which are intended to subsidize child care costs for families whose incomes are less than $7,500 a year. Nearly 40 percent of the revenues come from a county program that offsets some of those costs for families who earn less than $16,500 a year.The remaining costs, somewhat more than $32,000, must come from fees paid by parents or by private donations.
In recent years, however, private donations have dropped off sharply. Ironically, say day care directors, the centers are in much the same bind as the families they depend on for donations -- their costs are rising at the same time inflation and other factors are eating away at their income.
Every day care worker interviewed was able to relate at least one horror story of a brush with bankruptcy.
"Day care everywhere is a shoestring operation," says Judy McKnight, a former day care worker who is now an assistant director of the Fairfax Office for Children. "It's not uncommon at all for centers to pay their staff and tell them not to cash the checks until next week -- when they get the money to cover the payroll.
"You just have to be gutsy with your creditors and tell them you'll pay them when the cash flow improves."
At the emergency meeting on Seven Corners, Children's Office Director Judith Rosen pleaded with members of the center's board to reexamine their financial reports to see if the center couldn't be saved with some modifications.
"This is one of the finest centers in the county," Rosen said. "That's what makes it doubly sad -- not only are we losing a day care center, but a very fine one."
Several options were suggested to the Seven Corners board: Accept fewer poor children, add more upper-income children, reduce staff salaries. But the center officials had already considered those options -- and rejected them.
"That defeats the purpose of a day care center," said Seven Corners treasurer Laird of the suggestion to limit the number of low-income children. "We have consistently taken children from low- and middle-income families . . . there are lots of day care centers for the people who can afford to pay." .
Seven Corners reserves all of its 50-child capacity for children whose parents qualify for subsidized day care. The parents pay fees ranging from $6.50 to $37.50 per week for each child, depending on family income. fees at unsubsidized day care operations, by comparison, are about $50 weekly per child.
Nor did the proposal to cut staff salaries gain much support.
"[Staff members] are underpaid as it is," Laid said flatly. ". . . A number are paid under the poverty level."
At Seven Corners, the starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree and no experience is $9,000 or $3,675 less than a Fairfax County teacher. Unlike public school teachers, day care instructors cannot look forward to 6 1/2 hour school days with two months off in the summer. Day care workers put in 40-hour weeks, and often are asked to stay late when parents don't pick up their children on time. Vacation is two weeks, in the summer.
By national standards, however, Seven Corners and other local centers have extravagant pay scales and generous benefits. The Day Care Council of America estimates the average income of a day care worker at $7,500. In addition, Seven Corners workers are paid overtime and are covered by group medical insurance.
"You can't expect to attract qualified day care workers when you're paying the minimum wage," says Falls Church-McLean center director Casseen.
At Seven Corners, staff members have not had a pay raise since August 1979 (except for a 2 percent "cost-of-living" increase on their individual anniversary dates). All workers there would qualify for government aid if their own children were in the program.
"You really have to be dedicated to day care, or just be waiting for a job in the public schools in order to get into the field," says Seven Corners director Connie Brown, who also doubles as a social worker and nutritionist at the center.
For the time being, Brown's job and those of her staff members are safe. If Supervisor Davis is able to mobilize the community into making up an aproximate $400-a-month deficit for Seven Corners, the center may continue to operate.
But Seven Corners board members are not optimistic.
"This is the worst time to solicit contributions," said Al Burrows, chairman of the board, at last weekend's emergency meeting. "With Christmas coming up, people have other things on their minds."