The new City Council's first-ever regular meeting Jan. 26 moved at an exceptionally brisk pace. Mayor Kirk Watson got things going right at 10am, as he promised to do, and adjourned for the day around 2:30pm. It was a City Hall reporter's dream.
The item of the day was a resolution from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes to make it easier to open child care centers. "Every single neighborhood should have access to high-quality child care and it should be accessible and affordable," Fuentes said before her resolution was approved unanimously. "This policy is rooted in that."
Fuentes' resolution increases the number of children that can be enrolled in each location, creates a grant fund to help pay the city fees associated with opening or expanding a child care center, and – thanks to an amendment from CM Chito Vela – eliminates parking requirements entirely. This is a goal of housing advocates, but it also will let care centers better serve children and possibly get them more funding from the state.
As Cathy McHorse, who leads the Success by 6 early childhood education program at the United Way for Greater Austin, helped explain, the Texas Rising Star program offers enhanced tuition reimbursements to child care centers that serve families with lower income and exceed state licensing standards – one of which is the amount of learning space available, which can increase if the amount of parking space decreases. "We also know that the quality of programs impacts the long-term development of children," McHorse told the Chronicle. "So having higher-quality learning environments not only could help operators financially, it would undoubtedly be better for the children they serve, too."
Anthony and Joanna Carrillo operate the Mockingbird MicroSchool out of a duplex they own in South Austin; they are seeking a conditional use permit allowing them to care for more than six children. After spending a year bringing the property up to state standards, the Carrillos ran headfirst into the city's development bureaucracy and its many fees. Anthony Carrillo said that after speaking with land use attorneys and engineers, he anticipates paying from $50,000 to $100,000 to get the permit, mostly to pay an engineer to draft a site plan. "It was extremely discouraging," he told the Chronicle. "I have experience opening businesses, so I was prepared for roadblocks, but what I've experienced in Austin has been much harder than anywhere else."
But Anthony and Joanna intend to persevere so they can expand. For one thing, they're already eyeing a spot on their property for additional programming – maybe an air-conditioned gym, maybe another classroom – that under current regulations would have to be parking. "I don't know what we would use the space for just yet," Carrillo said, "but anything would be better than a parking lot."
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