SPEED is of the essence in the hunt for a new childcare provider to replace UnitingCare Gippsland, which will be relinquishing its responsibilities at Foster, Mirboo North, Cowes and Lakes Entrance effective from the end of February next year, citing financial difficulties.
South Gippsland Shire Council has already begun working with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) to try to secure an alternative provider for the two centres in this shire – the Prom Coast Centre for Children at Foster and St Andrew’s Childcare Centre at Mirboo North.
At Foster the building, barely three years old, which houses an integrated childcare, kindergarten and maternal and child health service, is owned by the shire but it is on crown land, managed by the shire. At Mirboo North the situation is complicated by the fact that the Uniting Church owns the centre and the land – and it will not brook another provider running a service on its property.
A community meeting was held at the centre in Foster last Wednesday night and a meeting will be held at 7pm tomorrow night (November 7) at Baromi Senior Citizens Centre in Mirboo North.
The shire’s director of community services, Jan Martin, said she was hopeful a provider could be found for the Foster service, but UnitingCare Gippsland has not allowed much time for a smooth transition.
“We have to have someone in place prior to Christmas,” she told last Wednesday’s meeting, which packed out the childcare centre. In the audience to hear Ms Martin and the other shire officers were many concerned parents, as well as several local principals, worried about the ramifications for their communities, and councillors Mohya Davies, Jeanette Harding and Jim Fawcett.
“This is a very important issue. UnitingCare Gippsland’s announcement came as a disappointment and a surprise for us, too. We understand how important good childcare is for the development of children, for parents’ peace of mind and for the local economy, so we appreciate the impact of UnitingCare’s action and are keen to find a solution,” said Ms Martin.
She stressed that Council was committed to maintaining the integrated service that currently exists at Foster, including childcare and kindergarten services at the centre and three satellite kindergarten services at Fish Creek, Toora and Welshpool. This model, she assured worried parents and teachers from the communities outside Foster, was non-negotiable with potential service providers.
She introduced Liz Wright, who has been employed to develop an Expression of Interest process with the tightest of timelines. Expressions of Interest will be called for in an advertisement in the press this Saturday. By then packages of information will be ready for dispatch to prospective providers. Parents were invited to pass on their suggestions as to the ideal attributes of a service provider to their Parents’ Advisory Group representative, who will collate them and send them onto Council.
“If you are aware of organisations with the right philosophy you can urge them to apply,” said Ms Martin. She said that the shire has no specific preferences as to service providers and will be seeking general Expressions of Interest. She did say, however, that much as many people favoured a community committee of management, the DEECD had advised that there would not be sufficient time to get such a model up and running.
She also said that already a number of providers – mainly but not solely commercial – have contacted Council, indicating there is some interest out there.
When the floor was given over to the audience, the questions came thick and fast.
Wil Pruyn, who is the chair of the Parents’ Advisory Group at the centre in Foster, asked how much chance there was of finding a viable service provider when Uniting Care had been unsuccessful running the service on a break-even basis. Ms Martin explained, “We believe there are more efficient models. Large organisations sometimes have overheads that a smaller organisation might not have.”
In response to her query about the possibility of having a parent representative “to safeguard quality of care” on the panel assessing the potential service providers, Ms Pruyn was told that it might be possible.
Ms Pruyn said later that the meeting had seen “a terrific turnout of community members who are passionate about ensuring a viable future for Prom Coast Centre for Children”.
“Upon reflection after the meeting, I cannot help but be reminded of the importance of the staff in this whole difficult situation we are in. We are very fortunate to have passionate and dedicated staff at our centre who have developed strong relationships with the children and families that utilise all our centre’s services. They are a huge asset that we do not want to lose and very important to the success of any incoming service provider.”
Ms Pruyn said she was buoyed by Council’s willingness to consider the option of a caretaker period if a service provider cannot be found by the pressing deadline. She added: “Whilst the benefits of a community owned centre are too many to list, we are also highly aware of the need for full community support in order for it to be successful. I think we are doing our community an injustice if we do not explore the options that exist and could work, at least on an interim basis, to ensure our centre can continue to operate beyond 28 February 2014, if a suitable service provider cannot be appointed in that time.
“There are some very successful community based children’s centres in our district (Wonthaggi, Korumburra, Leongatha), and given the successful model that was Prom Coast Children’s Services before we integrated, our community has proven it too is capable of running this model of service. Our local community and staff have also been highly involved in the process of developing and delivering the Integrated Service model for our centre which puts us in a good position to ensure this level of service continues to operate across all our centres.”
Jan Martin wound up the meeting after an hour and a half, urging people lobby their parliamentarians at state and federal level. “Your influence will make the strongest difference. Be as strong in your advocacy as you can,” she advised.
Shire CEO Tim Tamlin said later that Deputy Premier and Member for Gippsland South Peter Ryan had expressed his support for the bid to find an alternative to UnitingCare Gippsland. He said that Mr Ryan had vowed he would ensure the accreditation process for a new provider got a smooth run through government channels.
The federal member for McMillan, Russell Broadbent, also said that the issue was of great concern. “My office has been in contact with UnitingCare Gippsland about the closures and will continue to work to try and guarantee the best outcome for the McMillan electorate,” he said.