childcare_4413The new Phillip Island Children’s Hub in Cowes only opened this year, receiving a plaque unveiling just two weeks ago, and its operator, UnitingCare Gippsland, has announced it is pulling out. Other centres at Mirboo North and Foster are also affected.

HUNDREDS of families in South Gippsland and Bass Coast face childcare uncertainty after the Uniting Church announced it is pulling out as operator of four Gippsland centres. UnitingCare Gippsland (UCG) blames operational losses for its decision to withdraw as from centres at Cowes, Foster, Mirboo North and Lakes Entrance. If new service providers can’t be found by February next year, the centres may close, impacting over 600 families and 45 UCG employees. Speaking on Gippsland ABC Radio last week, UCG CEO Tracy Gibson said the agency had been forced to draw money from its reserves to prop up a $1.2 million loss at the four centres over the past two years. She said the board of UCG had exhaustively considered and introduced a number of efficiencies at the centres but couldn’t see a way to make their operations sustainable under the present funding model. “We have sought funding support to keep the centres open until the end of February next year and we’ve also spoken to government and the local shires about finding new service providers who may be able to operate the centres under a more viable business model than we have been able to come up with,” Ms Gibson said. “We’ve made changes but we can’t meet the gap between the cost of running the centres and the income we receive.” Ms Gibson said the profile of each of the centres was different, noting that some were closer to being financially viable than others and it may be they fitted in better with another service provider. She said it was the changes made by the State Government to staff-child care ratios, without a corresponding increase in Commonwealth funding, that had been the main problem and she didn’t see how increases in fees charged to families, to cover the gap in government funding, would make much difference. “We’re not the first and we won’t be the last childcare service provider to consider withdrawing and there needs to be a discussion around the funding and provision of childcare, especially in rural and regional areas.” She said wage rates in metro areas were generally higher than in the country so higher childcare fees were sustainable at city centres. She also said that there was more part-time and casual work in rural and regional areas, especially in coastal areas where hospitality work was inclined to fluctuate with demand. This, she said, made it more difficult financially to operate childcare centres in the country and it needed to be acknowledged with additional government funding. The Nationals’ Member for Gippsland (Federal), Darren Chester agreed. He said he supported the present Productivity Commission review of childcare but said the major funding reforms to be delivered in the 2015 Budget would come too late to help the Gippsland centres. Regarding kindergarten programs at the Prom Coast Centre for Children at Foster and the Children’s Hub at Cowes, Ms Gibson said they will “continue to operate regardless of a new provider or not”, with UCG remaining at the helm of kinder programs only.

Mirboo North ready to fight

Parents in and around Mirboo North are rallying after receiving word of the possible closure of the town’s only childcare centre last week. A campaign page on Facebook – ‘Save St Andrews Childcare Mirboo North’ – quickly sprang up, with determined parents seeking to establish a working group immediately, as well as organise a petition and a meeting with Federal member for McMillan Russell Broadbent. The page currently has 74 members and is growing daily. One contributor to the page, Kylie-Jane Larmour from Allambee Reserve, works part-time in Leongatha and has two children, aged 1 and 4, currently attending St Andrews. She said that if the centre closed she may not be able to transition to full-time employment as planned, but she acknowledges that the situation is much direr for others. “The reality is, I know of three families who are looking to leave town if there’s no accessible child care,” Kylie-Jane said. “And it’s not going to make Mirboo North very attractive to new families.” Kylie-Jane believes closure of the centre would have a major impact on local businesses. “If I have to take my youngest to childcare in Leongatha, chances are I’ll do my shopping there too,” she explained. “That will impact on the Mirboo North IGA, the butcher, discount stores, post office, bakery, cafes, bookshop, newsagents, take away food, hardware, chemist and petrol station. “It would have a detrimental impact on the whole town if other families did the same thing.” Last Thursday, Kylie-Jane visited a number of Mirboo North traders to spread awareness and distribute a petition. “Every business I visited that had a manager present has agreed to take a petition,” she said. “I think that’s indicative of community support.”

Church ‘not consulted’

St Andrews Uniting Church council chairperson Rob Kiddell stressed that the church council and its congregation were not consulted and played no part in last week’s bombshell decision. “Our church family has always worked collaboratively with UnitingCare Gippsland and was taken completely by surprise and is devastated at the news of the agency pulling out,” Mr Kiddell said. “The decision has apparently already led to parents seeking childcare outside Mirboo North and making preparations to move their families to nearby Leongatha. “This decision really has the potential to hurt this small rural community. “Whilst we at St Andrews appreciate that a not-for-profit enterprise can’t continue to make losses, our Church Council, elders and whole church family are disappointed that we weren’t consulted and given the opportunity to explore ways to help achieve financial viability. Mr Kiddell pointed out that St Andrew’s Church had been involved in working to establish a child care centre at Mirboo North before UnitingCare Gippsland’s involvement. “It is clear that the terms of the agreement between the local church and Kilmany Uniting Care (now Uniting Care Gippsland) provide that Uniting Care Gippsland: ‘…will give six months’ notice in writing should it decide to withdraw from managing the facility’. “While the church is disheartened by UnitingCare’s difficult decision, St Andrews Mirboo North has asked that families and staff be assured that the local church will do whatever it can to ensure the continuation of the centre in our community.”

Council response

South Gippsland Shire Mayor, Cr Kieran Kennedy, addressed the issue at a council meeting last Wednesday, announcing two public meetings. “Council is concerned about the impact UnitingCare Gippsland’s withdrawal will have on families and staff at these services,” Cr Kennedy said. “We have been in discussion with UnitingCare Gippsland and, together with the State Government, will work on finding alternative providers to take over these services. “We have already started an expression of interest process so childcare services can continue with minimal interruption with an alternative provider to be installed before February.” A meeting at Foster is scheduled for tomorrow, Wednesday, October 30 at 7pm, at the Prom Coast Centre for Children. The concerns of Mirboo North families will be addressed at a meeting on Thursday, November 7 at 7pm, with a location still to be confirmed. “These meetings will be a chance to clarify council’s role and possible solutions,” Cr Kennedy said. In the meantime, the Mirboo North Foundation is holding a community planning workshop at the Walter Tuck Reserve tomorrow, Wednesday, October 30, where the issue will be discussed. Meanwhile, Bass Coast Shire’s acting community and economic development director, Antoinette Mitchell, said council will do “everything in its power” to ensure an alternative provider is in place at the Phillip Island Early Learning Centre at the end of February. The $3 million dollar children’s hub, located next to Cowes Primary School, was only formally opened just two weeks ago. “While this is a disappointing decision, our main concern now is service continuity at the centre, so that no family is adversely affected by UnitingCare’s decision,” Ms Mitchell said. “We are currently talking to various stakeholders and investigating options, and will be providing further reports as we work through a solution. “Council made a significant investment of over $2 million to see the Phillip Island Early Learning Centre come to life. “It is a state of the art facility that provides integrated childcare and maternal and child health services and an example of the kind of facility that facilitate children’s early development and transition to education. “We are optimistic that the centre will continue to provide these services to the community of Phillip Island.” Bass MP Ken Smith said he was disappointed to hear of UCG’s decision. “We just opened up that beautiful new facility and it’s disappointing,” Mr Smith said. “I’m sure another group will step in to take it on; I don’t doubt that. “I don’t think the centre will close, it will just be a transition.”