ITHACA, N.Y.—A new $372,000 annual donation from Cornell University will fund a new program that will provide start-up grants for local daycare facilities.

The Child Development Council of Central New York, which will oversee the program, will receive a total of $1.86 million over the five-year life of the contract. Most of the money will go towards grants for would-be daycare operators; $72,000 will cover the salary for a program director. 

Melissa Perry heads the Child Development Council, which provides resources and referrals for childcare providers throughout Tompkins and Cortland County. Perry said she expects the funding will be able to support start-up costs for about five new daycare providers per year. 

“We have a lot of people who come to us who are really interested in opening a child care program,” Perry said. “But that one key piece that was always missing was restrictions on their funding.”

The award is likely to make the largest difference for small, independent daycare providers, called “family daycare” programs. Operators, who are often parents themselves, can get certified to operate a small child care program out of their home. 

One-third of the money will be allocated towards family daycare providers. Perry said even a few thousand dollars can make a big difference for those businesses. 

“They could be a person who is very passionate about providing a healthy safe environment for children and have all the skills, but that barrier is so often a financial one,” Perry said.

Family daycare providers now make up an increasing percentage of childcare providers across the state, in part because their start-up costs are significantly lower than those of a larger daycare center. 

“We’ve been working on this for months and months and finally we got the contract signed, so we’re very excited,” Perry said. 

Perry said the conversation around this particular program first began back in spring, but said that the Child Development Council had been working with the university for many years prior. Perry said the donation was the largest her organization has received. Yearly, would constitute about 15 percent of the Council’s operating budget.

The donation was announced just ahead of Wednesday’s hotly contested vote by the Ithaca Common Council on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreement between the city and Cornell.

In the current iteration of the agreement, Cornell would pay the city $4 million yearly, adjusted for inflation, until the agreement expires in 21 years. The donation is meant to defray would-be property tax income from Cornell owned properties. The university is exempt from the taxes due to its non-profit status.

Critics have said the donation to the city is insufficient and the length of the agreement too long. Advocates have circulated petitions, fliers and held multiple protests on the topic. Dozens also flooded City Hall chambers last month to speak out against the current proposal.

The donation to the Child Development Council is one of several contributions from the university to local agencies in recent months, including a $150,000 increase in annual funding to the Ithaca City School District.

In an interview, Cornell Director of Workplace Wellbeing Michelle Artibee declined to comment on the timing of the donation, but said the university’s work with the Child Development Council goes back years. The new donation is in addition to Cornell’s yearly $70,000 contribution to the Child Development Council, Artibee said.

Artibee said the daycare facilities that receive the funding will not be required to offer special treatment for the children of Cornell affiliates. She said the university will not be involved in the operations of the program, but will receive routine reports from the Child Development Council.

“We feel that the growth of [child care] space in our community as a standalone is beneficial for all and beneficial for us,” Artibee said. 

The Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, considers nearly all of Tompkins County to be a childcare desert

In a statement, Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff said expanding child care access was “essential to the continued success of Cornell, our community, and our local economy.”

“As the largest employer in the county, we recognize the importance of having a healthy and accessible child care system,” Kotlikoff wrote.

Applications for the start-up grants will be available online at the Child Development Council’s website in coming days. 

Update: A previous version of this article used an incorrect name for the Child Development Council. It is the Child Development Council of Central New York, not the Child Development Council of Tompkins and Cortland Counties.

Megan Zerez is a general assignment reporter at the Ithaca Voice. Reach her via email or social media @meganzerez