Business

Shirley Leung

UMass Boston chancellor flubs first big move on fixing the budget

Closing the day-care center at the University of Massachusetts Boston is Barry Mills’s first major budget-whacking move as interim chancellor.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File 2017

Closing the day-care center at the University of Massachusetts Boston is Barry Mills’s first major budget-whacking move as interim chancellor.

Did someone take away Barry Mills’s Goldfish crackers and juice box?

Closing the day-care center at the University of Massachusetts Boston is Mills’s first major budget-whacking move as interim chancellor, and if he wanted to show he means business, he picked absolutely the wrong line item to make a point.

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No one should take pride in trying to balance the budget on the backs of 55 babies and toddlers.

Access to affordable child care shouldn’t be treated as a luxury like a new gym or a juice bar in the cafeteria. It’s a basic necessity at a campus that serves a majority-minority student body with many low-income parents taking classes while working full time.

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And everyone knows that access to quality preschool puts kids on a path to graduate from high school and get a college degree.

The UMass Boston day care loses money perennially, costing the school $550,000 last year. But public universities shouldn’t be operating an early learning center with the goal of making money; at best, it should break even. Most likely, the program will require a subsidy.

In a statement to the Globe, Mills called the Early Learning Center an “important service” but said it had failed his financial test.

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“The realities of the $30 million budget shortfall UMass Boston faces will force many painful choices upon the campus, and in making spending-reduction decisions, a key question will be: Does this program directly advance the university’s core academic and research mission?” Mills said in the statement. “Those programs that do not — however important and laudable they may be — have to be examined closely in moments of extreme financial distress.”

It’s worth noting that wealthy Bowdoin College in bucolic Maine, where Mills was the longtime president before coming to Boston, has its own day-care center.

Kiana Cole for the Boston Globe

The UMass Boston day-care center.

UMass Boston cited declining enrollment and higher operating costs as reasons why the day-care center will close on Dec. 29. Anyone with young children knows that many child-care centers have waiting lists; clearly the demand is out there, especially for affordable options in a state that has notoriously expensive child-care costs.

Mills was brought in to clean up the financial mess left by his predecessor, Keith Motley, who was in the job for a decade. Rather than taking the time to fix UMass Boston’s preschool problem, Mills took the easy way out.

Mills, in his statement, pledged that the university would work with families to ensure that each child “has a high-quality placement before the center closes at the end of this year.”

By late Friday afternoon, Mills — perhaps realizing the PR fiasco on his hands — issued a statement saying the university is now exploring options to work with nonprofit providers to assume control of its child-care center.

This is what UMass Boston should have done all along.

If the university needs more help, it should lean on House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, both of whom have made quality early education a priority.

If DeLeo and Rosenberg can’t even save one state preschool, that would be a travesty.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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