Parents, kids hold rally to keep UNO day care center open

A dozen or so pint-sized protesters joined approximately 40 parents Friday at a rally to oppose the looming shutdown of the University of New Orleans’ children’s day care center.

The center, which has been in operation since 1988 and currently serves 81 children, is scheduled to close Dec. 20 due to cuts in the university’s budget, UNO spokesman Adam Norris said.

Concerned students and faculty members marched from the center to the administration building, where they unveiled a proposal to cobble together $150,000 to help the center stay open through next semester.

The proposal calls for parents to raise $50,000, the university to contribute $50,000 and the final $50,000 to be generated by a joint fundraiser that would be held in January.

According to figures provided by the university, the day care center has annual expenses of $800,000 and revenue of $600,000. UNO students pay $450 per month to use the center for their children, while faculty members and alumni pay $600.

Parents at Friday’s event expressed dismay at the planned closing, and many said they were frustrated by the short notice they were given by UNO.

Parents were informed of the decision in a letter sent on Oct. 10.

“I’m worried about my kids and honestly I’m worried about the university,” said Baty Johnson, one of the organizers of the event.

Johnson said that even though she’s had some dialogue with the administration, she thinks UNO officials didn’t do enough to “take the pulse of the community” before making the decision.

Neal Walsh, a creative writing professor whose 1-year-old son Sherwood was scheduled to attend the center starting next semester, said the convenience of on-campus day care was an amenity that he valued when recently accepting a tenure-track position at UNO. The lack of such a resource will hurt the university in future recruiting efforts, he said.

“I don’t know any serious university that doesn’t have a day care center,” Walsh said.

Organizers said they invited both UNO President Peter Fos and Vice President Greg Lassen to speak at the event, but neither attended or was available for comment. Norris said both officials had schedule conflicts and that Lassen has met individually with numerous concerned parents since the decision was made.

The decision to close the center, Norris said, came down primarily to budget concerns.

“In these challenging budgetary times, the university must focus its resources on its core mission of teaching and conducting research,” he wrote in an email. “While we would have liked to continue providing child care services to our faculty, staff and students, operating the center was too costly while serving a comparatively small number of children.”

Alexandra O’Dowd, director of the children’s center, said enrollment has been falling in the last few years and the center isn’t anywhere near its capacity, which is capped at 190 by fire marshal regulations.

Norris said the university is willing to work with parents to try to find a feasible solution to keeping the center open. He also said the day care recently hosted an open house with other child care providers to help parents find other options for their children.

Zhengchang Liu, a biochemistry professor, said he fears that if the center closes, either he or his wife will have to stop working in order to take care of their kids.

“It’s going to be almost impossible for all of the children to find day care,” he said.

If the center does close, its seven staff members have been informed they’ll be out of a job, according to Antonia Celius, who has been working at the facility for the past year.

Celius said she and other staff members were crestfallen when they heard the news of the closure.

“We were shocked,” she said. “A lot of us are in mourning.”

She said she’s worried she will have problems finding a job in January, as most day cares do their hiring in August. Celius said it will be tough to lose the relationships the faculty has built with the children.

“It’s a family breaking up,” she said.