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Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has proposed the disestablishment of council-owned early childhood centres. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyDecember 8, 2022

Outrage over Auckland mayor’s plan to cut council-owned early childhood centres

a wavy border around a top-down photo of a kid drawing
Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown has proposed the disestablishment of council-owned early childhood centres. (Image: Archi Banal)

Ten council-owned early childhood centres are part of a raft of proposed cuts within Auckland mayor Wayne Brown’s draft budget released earlier this week. But parents and teachers say the cost of losing the centres would be immense.

Parents, whānau and teachers are voicing concern after Auckland Council-owned Kauri Kids early childhood centres were included in a raft of proposed cuts in mayor Wayne Brown’s draft budget released this week.

Nearly 350 children attend the ten Kauri Kids sites in Beach Haven, Birkdale, Clendon, East Coast Bays, Glenfield, Howick, Ōtara, Papatoetoe, Stanmore and Takapuna, which all together employ more than 50 early childhood teachers. 

“Staff advice” documents to support the proposed budget outline that Kauri Kids operated at a loss of $0.2 million for the financial year 2021/2022 before contribution to overhead and assumed rent costs, “or an estimated total loss of around $1 million.” It is proposed that the council “discontinues being a direct provider of this service and earns a commercial return from the premises” which they estimate will reduce ongoing net costs by an estimated $1 million each year.  “The primary opportunity is for council to reduce operating losses from this activity and earn a commercial return on the lease of the premises,” the documents said.

Next week, Auckland Council will vote on the proposal, as part of a wider suite of potential cuts to public transport services, community events and education programmes in order to facilitate lower rates increases. If the proposal is voted in, it could see the centres sold to other commercial providers or closed entirely.

In a press release, the teacher union NZEI Te Riu Roa said the proposal had created uncertainty for teachers and whānau about the future of the centres. “Tamariki and whānau should not have to lose access to their much-loved and essential early childhood centres, as well as the communities that have formed around them,” NZEI wrote in the release. They also said the potential disestablishment of the centres would remove a low-cost community-based childcare option for families in a landscape that is becoming increasingly unaffordable and dominated by privately-owned operations.  

Wayne Brown arrives at work for his first full day as Auckland mayor (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The number of privately-owned early childhood centres has grown significantly over the last decade, from 23 per cent in 2002, to 41 per cent in 2019. At the same time, parents in Aotearoa face some of the highest childcare costs in the Western world. According to the latest OECD data from 2018, a typical couple who both earn the average wage and have two kids spends 23% of their income on childcare.

Stay-at-home parent Claire Barker has two children who’ve attended Kauri Kids centres. Her son currently goes to the centre in Beach Haven and, because he’s under three years old, doesn’t qualify for the government’s 20 hours of subsidised ECE. The decision to send her children to Kauri Kids was a deliberate one, based around their smaller class sizes, affordability and not-for-profit nature. “A private organisation is driven by profit so they will do everything to increase the profit margin, whereas in a community-owned centre like Kauri Kids the children are the most important,” she says.

Following her first pregnancy, Barker was diagnosed with postnatal depression and says Kauri Kids gave her “just a couple of hours of reprieve from having the kids full time”. A few hours a week where her child is at Kauri Kids “means that I can see a psychologist or go to the doctor, or go and do the grocery shopping without having a crying child; or the thing that’s a real treat is doing the vacuuming without having to hold a child.”

While hours at daycares and private early childcare centres are more regimented, Kauri Kids allows shorter and more flexible hours which Barker says are beneficial for working parents. The potential closure of the centres has put her plans to return to work as a relief teacher next year up in the air. Placing her children in a privately-owned centre “wouldn’t make any sense money wise,” she says; and when it comes to the cheaper option of kindergartens, waitlists are often at least six months-long. “The mayor is talking about the cost-of-living crisis and debt but this will cause my family more financial hardship if we have to send my son to a privately-owned daycare or if I can’t go to work,” she says.

Barker’s concerns are broader than her own situation, however. Many of the Kauri Kids centres are situated in low income areas and she worries about the impact closures will have on families who are already struggling to make rent, pay for groceries and keep the electricity on.

Another parent at the centre, Jess Hurley-Smith works part time and explains that her son is usually at the centre four days a week between 9am and 2pm. Although she’s in a position where she could pay more if it was necessary to find a new centre for her son, that’s not the case for everyone. “We have a very diverse and low socioeconomic community,” she says. “The flexibility and the low costs that Kauri Kids offer allows a lot of our vulnerable families community to have access to ECE.”

Hurley-Smith sees the contrast in approaches to sick days as emblematic of the difference between Kauri Kids and privately-owned alternatives. While families at Kauri Kids aren’t charged for days when children are home sick, it’s standard for private early childhood centres to still charge for allotted days. “When something like this which is a community asset becomes privatised, it removes those options for a lot of families,” she says.

A Kauri Kids teacher who has requested she remain anonymous says she’s disappointed in the framing of the council’s proposed budget. “They’re putting money before education,” she says. “If we don’t invest and look after our little tamariki, how can we expect them to grow into confident, competent learners?”

To her, early childhood education is a social good that allows parents to work without the burden of exorbitant childcare fees. “This is our children’s right and our families’ right, to be able to afford low-cost, quality childcare and family services,” she says. “There are other centres around us, but a lot of our families won’t be able to afford them.” 

More than 50 teachers work across the centres and she’s worried that the precariousness of whether their jobs will exist in six months’ time will be demoralising and potentially lead to them taking other jobs. “Our teachers are really disappointed because they have put their heart and soul into caring for these children,” she adds.

“Now our livelihoods are in the hands of people who are just sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers, who don’t really know anything about early childhood education or what we actually do for our families,” she says. “These children are not just another number in the centre for Kauri Kids, they are our whānau.”

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