Parents and community members are circulating petitions to keep Camp Hutchins open after July, with the promise to attend the next Lodi City Council meeting if the city's decision to seek facility rent is not reversed.
Lodi Health announced through letters sent home to students' homes earlier this month that it has decided to shutter its popular preschool and daycare programs. The decision comes after more than 15 years of operating it on city-owned property, after the City Council gave direction to renegotiate the lease to seek rent.
"It's kind of an underhanded deal the way it went down without any public input," said Mike McCune, who pays $140 a week for his daughter to attend Camp Hutchins' daycare. The same staff works there as when both his 21- and 17-year-old daughters attended.
"There's no transparency between these two agencies. I don't like the way the way it has been handled," he said of discussions between the city and Lodi Health, formerly Lodi Memorial Hospital.
But Lodi Health spokeswoman Carol Farron said the situation is clear: "The city has a need to strengthen its finances, and so do we."
The city has been providing approximately 3,000 square feet of space under a $1-a-year lease agreement with the hospital.
"Under those circumstances, it wasn't too difficult to operate. It wasn't a financial burden on us," Farron said, adding that in the past 15 years, finances for both the city and health care system have changed.
"We cannot afford to pay more than a dollar a day," Farron said.
In December 2012, following City Council discussion regarding rental fees, council members voted unanimously to give direction for city staff to amend the lease agreement to include a monthly rental fee. When city staff followed up with Lodi Health, organizers chose to close the program, citing a decision to focus more on health-care reform.
Administrators are in the process of accessing programs and services to prepare for federal health care mandates, according to Farron.
"Our primary purpose and mission is to provide health care to patients," she said. "Cities are not in the childcare providing business, and hospitals usually aren't either."
McCune specifically takes issue with receiving a letter from Camp Hutchins regarding its closure on Feb. 2 — after the city council already made the decision to seek revenue under a budget item on the agenda.
After personally speaking to both city and Lodi Health representatives, parent Suzann Limb also wants to see more transparency in discussions between the parties.
Limb has started circulating a petition calling for the city to keep the program open, as it provides high-quality early education for the children of Lodi residents, necessary child care for Lodi's working families and a safe place for school-age children during school vacations and after school, she said.
If an agreement is not made between the parties, according to Limb, petitioners will be attending next week's council meeting to voice their concern about losing another program and contributing to the high unemployment rate by adding another seven citizens to the statistics.
"If they had to shut it down, why did they have to do so without involving the parents?" McCune asked, adding that he knows of fellow parents who will have to quit their jobs due to the inconvenience. "We're just asking for it to be put on the agenda and allow the community to come to the aid of Camp Hutchins, if needed. That is a community building, so we have a right to ask about it."
Camp Hutchins, housed within Hutchins Street Square, is designed specifically to prepare children ages 3 to 5 for kindergarten with creative and cultural experiences in music, art, literature, group and hands-on learning activities, according to the website.
The program was originally founded by the city, but the hospital organization took over operation at the city's request in 1998.
Until 2006, it was solely a daycare program and served more than 350 families. It reopened that year with the additional preschool component and currently serves about 30 children, according to Farron, who said staff will work with displaced families seeking alternative care.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.