Long kindergarten waiting lists in Lithuania have officials scrambling for answers and desperate parents ponying up bribes.by Linas Jegelevicius 5 September 2012
VILNIUS | Edita Bagdoniene is a happily married mother of two, but sometimes she gets so frustrated taking care of her young sons day in and day out that she mutters, “If only I were a single mother ...”
Were that the case, Bagdoniene could send her son Mykolas, nearly 3, to kindergarten by now, thanks to a government policy granting special-needs families priority for spots that are becoming harder to land by the day in Vilnius following a recent baby boom. Instead, like thousands of Lithuanian mothers, her family's life is stalled along with her child’s education.
“Not being able to send my kids to kindergarten stresses out our family and might cripple my career,” said Bagdoniene, a 35-year-old fashion designer who worked at a major Lithuanian label before taking consecutive maternity leaves following the births of Mykolas and her second son, 4-month-old Gabrielius.
Fewer than 10 percent of Lithuanian children under 3 are in kindergarten or other formal childcare, putting the country 18th in the 27-member European Union, according to a report by the Vilnius-based European Institute for Gender Equality. In the capital of Vilnius, where kindergarten seats are scarcest, public schools will admit only around one-third of the 1,700 eligible children this year, officials say.
Waiting lists are so long, Bagdoniene said, that Mykolas could be 10 before he begins school.
“I am not exaggerating,” she said. “Here is my calculation: I put Mykolas on the waiting list for the Seskine kindergarten when he was born, in 2010. He was No. 128. Now the boy is over two and a half, but the list has inched up only 30 places. At this pace, my son will clinch his spot in around seven years.”
And Mykolas is relatively lucky. Waiting lists in most Vilnius kindergartens top 200 names. Desperate parents are resorting to bribing school administrators as they await implementation of a reform city authorities say will make the admissions process more efficient and transparent.
“All my female friends with kids have tackled the problem with bribes,” Bagdoniene said. "It has worked for most of them, and just a few have been turned away – not because the kindergarten heads were honest, I reckon, but because the envelopes were too thin.”
‘THE CONSERVATIVES ARE TO BLAME’
The cruel irony is that kindergartens in Vilnius, or Klaipeda and Siauliai, two smaller cities in northern Lithuania that also have shortages, had plenty of open seats just four or five years ago.
“Parents didn't even have to think of bothering with a waiting list,” said Viktoras Malinauskas, the father of two toddlers in Vilnius. “The Conservatives are to blame for the situation, which has worsened in recent years.”
The Conservatives – as the ruling Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats are known – won the 2008 parliamentary elections with a simple majority of seats. Their strong coalition quickly passed a raft of social legislation, including longer maternity leave and bigger benefits. A baby boom followed, with births in Vilnius increasing 16 percent, from 9,048 in 2008 to 10,500 in 2009, according to the city’s Civil Registry Department.
The Malinauskases were among the many couples encouraged by the benefits (since rolled back amid the downturn and state budget cuts) to start a family. The government, however, didn't prepare for the subsequent baby boom by investing in new schools – an oversight that, coupled with relatively low rates of emigration from urban areas, has taxed public kindergartens.
“No state kindergartens were built in Vilnius in 2012, but several private ones have opened their doors,” Malinauskas said. “A bad piece of news for us.”
More than 25,000 youngsters in Vilnius attend public kindergartens. Some 450 are enrolled in private facilities, which charge up to 1,000 litas ($364) a month – out of reach for the Malinauskases. Their monthly income of 2,400 litas – Viktoras’ salary plus 800 litas in maternity benefits – hardly covers their bills as it is.
To get his children into a public kindergarten, Malinauskas said he's considering offering a bribe. So is Edita Bagdoniene, who's heard 1,000 litas usually suffice.
A DUBIOUS REFORM?
At the same time, both families and many educators are eagerly anticipating the results of a municipal overhaul of kindergarten admissions. On 1 September, the Vilnius Department of Education, Culture, and Sport assumed control of admissions, taking it out of the hands of school officials, to improve transparency and efficiency.
Following the lead of Lithuania's second city, Kaunas, which introduced similar changes in July 2010, the Vilnius municipality has replaced paper logs compiled by individual schools with a centralized electronic system to track and manage admissions. Moreover, only municipal officials may now process enrollment paperwork. The reform will also eliminate the so-called “primary right” of single mothers and other socially vulnerable groups to skip to the front of the school line.
“The primary right was often abused,” said a Vilnius kindergarten administrator who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “Some parents would manage to obtain the status, but it would be very awkward to see the child’s daddy dropping his son off in a luxury SUV and the mother puffing smoke on the balcony of an apartment in the exclusive neighborhood across the street.”
Rasa Grigaliuniene, deputy director of a Vilnius kindergarten, said she’s rooting for the reform.
“We really hope this will work for the sake of the parents and kindergarten authorities," she said. "There has been much frustration and even threats over the years when our kindergarten managed the queue itself. We admitted 61 children this year, but there are more than 300 waiting."
Asked about bribes, Grigaliuniene shook her head.
“Sure, many tried to bribe us,” she said. “I remember when someone flung an envelope at me and ran for the door. I had to chase him all the way to the parking lot and tuck the envelope into his pocket. Some crazed person even threatened to blow us up if we didn't find a place for his child right away. We did not relent.”
Klaipeda, Siauliai, and other municipalities are considering similar overhauls, but many parents, including the Malinauskases, are skeptical. Though authorities in Kaunus say the “e-rollment” system has reduced backlogs – by eliminating duplicate registrations, for instance – public kindergartens are still short up to 1,000 seats, a top education official recently conceded. And rumors abound online that the e-system is already compromised by IT staffers who manipulate the lists for a price.
“For IT specialists, this is a way to rake in some nice stash,” Malinauskas said. “So corrupt kindergarten directors are effectively being replaced with corrupt IT specialists.”
“The e-system will sort through the existing waiting lists, annulling multiple registrations,” he said. “It has already uncovered 600 duplicates. Repealing the priority-enrollment benefits for socially supported families will also help.”
But the reform does little to address the key problem: a shortage of open kindergarten seats. Dzeraldas Dagys, head of schools within the Department of Education, Culture, and Sport, said some municipal officials want kindergartens to enlarge class sizes.
“We won’t give the green light for that because it violates stringent hygiene rules,” Dagys said.
For her part, Bagdoniene is optimistic that emigration – low in urban Lithuania compared with rural areas but still prevalent – and the government’s spending cutbacks will solve the problem organically.
“Women are reluctant to have kids because of the persistent shortage of kindergarten spots,” she said. “But with the maternity privileges axed and emigration, the issue will dwindle in a couple years.”