Thursday, June 13, 2024

A basketball awaits use Nov. 26, 2022, at the Sennott Park courts used as part of the Moses Youth Center in The Port neighborhood in Cambridge. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A jump in youth center fees for the coming year in Cambridge – as much as 34 times higher for some families – have parents in an uproar and city councillors calling for a justification, and maybe for the pain to be phased in over years.

“I am shocked, appalled and very scared about the price increase,” said Talia Brown, a parent who said she’d been planning to send her fourth-grader to a youth center and was told of price increases after her application was filed. “Learning that the price has gone up by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars makes it very difficult for families who have tried to budget and plan for their following school year.”

Another parent, Amanda Beatty, said that based on pricing from the 2023-2024 year for a middle-income household such as hers, she expected her fourth grader’s youth center experience to cost $9 a month. That’s rising to $170 a month for 2024-2025, she was told. For a friend in the top-income tier, an expense of $55 a month will leap to $764 a month in September, she told councillors at their Monday meeting.

The increases from the Department of Human Service Programs will make the rates for fourth and fifth graders equivalent to those of programs for younger children who require more supervision. Yet sixth through eighth graders get youth center programs for free regardless of income, according to a policy order by Mayor E. Denise Simmons asking for “a detailed justification” for increases she calls “unjustifiable.”

“The cost of child care is supposed to go down as children get older,” Beatty said in her public comment to the council.

Even if there’s a supportable rationale for the surge, councillors agreed that the shocking suddenness should be undone if possible and replaced with a phased-in series of increases or at least a year’s warning before it’s implemented. “It was very surprising to many of us to hear the scale of the increase. Such a dramatic increase should not surprise people,” said councillor Patty Nolan, who used the programs as a parent years ago. It would have been challenging to go to paying $7,500 a year from $500, she said.

A co-sponsor of the order, councillor Paul Toner – who also once took advantage of the sliding-scale programs as a parent – wanted to go further.

“I would actually love to figure out a way to maintain a lower-cost program rather than just assuming the costs are going to go up,” Toner said. “What will we have to do to try to keep the costs within reason?”

Staff give preliminary answers

The panicked, upset calls of parents facing price hikes had not gone just to city councillors, said Ellen Semonoff, assistant city manager for human services. “We have heard from many of the same families,” she told the council. “We’ve been doing the analysis and understand what the concerns are.”

She planned to come back to the council in a week with information about the “big jump this year,” Semonoff said.

A hint of that response was offered, though: that prices were set long ago when the youth centers served primarily a very low-income population compared with the city’s community schools. The populations shifted over time as Cambridge adopted a lottery approach for placement, Semonoff said. Now there are more kids from lower-income families in community schools and kids from higher-income families among the 1,000 in the five youth centers citywide – the Frisoli, Gately, Moore, Moses and Russell. There’s also a department-run Middle School Activities Club open to all sixth through eighth graders.

“If you were attending the third, fourth or fifth grade in our community schools or our child care after-school programs, you would be paying the rates that have been in effect for quite a long time, rates that are very much skewed by income … as the face of who’s in our youth center programs changed significantly, we did not do anything to change to the same kind of graduated-income program,” Semonoff said. “All of a sudden, a program that had very low rates because it had primarily low-income children now is a program where about 50 percent of the families are much higher-income. We are moving to make the charges for our programs the same.”

Still, Semonoff said,“we also understand we’ve made a rather dramatic shift in one year and the impact of that on families. We plan to come back and share our thinking on that.”

More councillor requests

A few other requests came from councillors about what they hoped to hear in a week, such as a comparative breakdown in costs between kinds of programs and what activities are offered in each. 

Simmons had her own question to add atop her policy order: learning how families were notified, and with what kind of warning.

“Did they wake up one morning and find that they were about to get a price increase? Or did you bring them along?” Simmons asked.

Nolan’s amendment for a phased-in approach to be considered passed unanimously, then Simmons’ order as a whole. The other council requests and questions weren’t added formally, but went to Semonoff for consideration when she returned in seven days.