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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2001

Privatizing nursery schools irks Takaishi parents group

Staff writer

TAKAISHI, Osaka Pref. -- With Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making vague noises on the importance of education, this city of 62,000 people is realizing that words alone aren't the answer.

Children at Higashi-Hagoromo nursery school listen to a staff member read a story.

In recent times, Koizumi has often quoted a Meiji Era parable in which a leader invested capital in schools and education rather than on short-term gratification. Residents of this city, however, are learning that cash speaks louder than words.

The city announced administrative and financial reforms in August 2000 that include privatizing six city-run nurseries starting from next April. The reason: to ease the 820 million yen local financial burden -- the antithesis to the spirit Koizumi has espoused.

The news shocked parents because the city had previously had a sound welfare policy based on abundant tax revenues from fixed property taxes in the coastal industrial district. But officials say tax revenues fell by about 2 billion yen from their peak of 15.3 billion yen in fiscal 1996. They also contend that turning nurseries over to the private sector is a viable way of achieving spending cuts.

"In terms of managing nurseries, private corporations can do a better (and more efficient) job," city official Tomofumi Oue said.

Parents disagree, however, saying the extra 820 million yen should be spent to maintain the service. Indeed, some families even moved to the city because of its high-quality nursery services.

"I came to live in Takaishi seven years ago and bought a house because I thought my children could be raised in a better environment here," said Junko Yamamoto, whose 2-year-old son attends one of the nursery schools. "I didn't foresee such a (privatization) plan being implemented."

For some parents, privatization spells cost-consciousness and a consequent decline in care standards.

"The nursery service in Takaishi is a lot better than the minimum standard set by the central government," said Megumi Yamashiki, who represents the parents' associations of the six nurseries. "For example, at a 1-year-old class, six kids have to be looked after by at least one staffer, while one staffer cares for less than five at Takaishi's nurseries. This means a higher level of care by the staff, whose status is guaranteed as city officials."

The perceived evasiveness by the city on the rationale behind the privatization prompted the parents to petition against the plan in December. They garnered more than 20,000 signatures out of the city's 49,490 eligible voters.

Despite this opposition by more than 40 percent of voters, the petition was effectively ignored by the city assembly as most of them have no doubts over the efficiency of private-run nurseries.

The parents' busy working schedules -- the very reason they rely on the nursery system -- did not stop them from going one step further in March and again collecting signatures, this time to enact an ordinance to hold a plebiscite on the issue.

But it was much harder the second time around because they had to meet strict legal requirements for the petition. Still, the parent associations secured 5,314 signatures, more than five times what was required. Unsurprisingly, however, the assembly rejected the petition in May with the support of most members.

Shinroku Sakaguchi, an independent assembly member who joined five others in voting to adopt the petition, said the assembly does not serve its function of scrutinizing the administration.

"It is obviously financial mismanagement by Mayor Tamezo Terada, who could have foreseen the plunge in tax revenues a few years back," Sakaguchi said. "Despite a cut in welfare expenditures, a 20 billion yen redevelopment project of the area in front of (Nankai Electric Railway's) Takaishi Station and a 2.2 billion yen city clinic construction project were not reviewed.

"Privatization of nurseries is only a means of shifting the mayor's responsibility. After all, the privatization of all six nurseries can save only 820 million yen out of the city's 30 billion yen budget."

After a bill to privatize the Higashi-Hagoromo nursery was passed by the assembly in June, all the parents could do was seek assurances that conditions at the nursery would be as good as possible.

But negotiations with the city ended in despair last week as demands on staffing and staff age were rejected.

The city said the nurseries will be privatized gradually, but city official Oue said no decision has been made on the number to be privatized or the timetable. He said there is no grand design on whether nurseries should be predominantly private or public.

"If any social changes are observed or the privatization causes any troubles for citizens, the privatization plan could be reviewed," he said.

Assembly member Sakaguchi criticized city hall, saying it is not considering children's welfare.

Yamashiki and her colleagues all complain that their antiprivatization campaign and the subsequent negotiations with the city merely added an extra burden to them on top of their jobs, housework and child care.

"We working mothers are in a weak position," she said. "And child nursing is a minor issue that most people don't pay much attention to. We'd rather spend more time with our kids (than campaigning against the privatization.)"

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