Meital Lehavi - Eyal Toueg
Meital Lehavi Photo by Eyal Toueg
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Amit Gosher
Anat Biran Photo by Amit Gosher
Hila Shmilovich
Galia Shmilovich Greengard Photo by Hila Shmilovich

Did you sign up your kid for a privately operated nursery school or kindergarten? Then you're abetting a crime. Are you looking for a play group (pe'uton ) to care for your 2-year old while you're at work? You should know that the State of Israel doesn't recognize such groups as being legal institutions. Are your children registered at any sort of preschool operating inside a residential building? You may well get a call one day that the authorities have shut it down and you have to come pick up your little one pronto.

"When you open a preschool you're in violation of the law from day one," says Anat Biran on the Education Resources Forum, which was organized by Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi. That is because, with some exceptions, the Planning and Building Law and the country's master plans do not allow space to be used for such facilities in residential buildings. Not a single square meter of the millions of square meters of housing built in Israel is designated for day care - with the exception of the centers run by the WIZO and Na'amat women's organizations.

"In my opinion this is exploitation of preschool teachers," storms Lehavi, adding that these are mostly people who feel they have a calling, and instead of rewarding them for it, the state maltreats them.

The norm in the country to register children from the age of three at municipal institutions that are under the wing of the Education Ministry. The city facilities are perfectly legal, of course. But the state has no solutions for younger children: The private sector must provide for these little ones, and sometimes the people involved in running them find themselves in a confrontation with the state.

The confrontation centers on the issue of property, since the list of proper uses of land omits day care. The list does includes places used as residences and those used for the purposes of housing commercial, employment, banking, medical care or hotel facilities, as well as gas stations and even sites for cellular transponders, you name it - but not nursery schools. Therefore, giant new neighborhoods may spring up in the country without a single square meter of space being designated for preschools for under-3-year-olds. The only way to legally set up a nursery school or other such facility for these children is by entering the complicated, expensive and entirely uncertain process of applying for a nonconformance permit: i.e., for permission to bend the zoning rules.

How is it that after 63 years, the national planning systems, which have shown a tendency to move with the times, ignore such a problem? One reason may be that day-care facilities aren't defined as "used by the general public" and therefore cannot be erected on land designated for public development. Another may be that the many nursery schools and kindergartens that are founded continue to operate on the basis of tacit agreements with the authorities, which tend to leave them in peace - until the neighbors sue. In any case, this omission in planning invites trouble, including day-care centers that operate in clearly unsuitable places.

Fighting with neighbors

A key problem for such facilities is relations with neighbors who don't appreciate the noise, or for whatever reason, complain to City Hall. Then come municipal inspectors and the result can be fines amounting to tens of thousands of shekels and even jail time.

The alternative is the process of obtaining a nonconformance permit, which is limited in time, but which could allow a day-care facility to operate on land not zoned for that use. However, it is far from certain that the local planning committee will agree to extend the permit, warns Biran. The permit may limit the number of children the who are enrolled, cap its hours of activity, or demand that a reinforced room (mamad ) against missile attack be built. "But there's no telling in advance what the local planning body may demand. Also, the neighbors are entitled to file objections," adds Biran.

And they may well complain, because of noise and nuisance, which prolongs the whole process of receiving a permit. And finally, there's no telling in advance how long the permit will be valid: Nonconformance permits are always limited in time.

Say somebody wants to operate a preschool and finds an appropriate place, then files for a nonconformance permit. That will take at least a year, Biran explains: Meanwhile the person presumably has to pay rent for the place but will have no income because she can't open it yet.

Without any other options, in such cases, the day-care facility may open before permission is granted, and if the neighbors sue, as said - the upshot can be heavy fines or even imprisonment, for breaking planning laws.

Just as warped is the situation of the planning authorities becoming de-facto pedagogic inspectors. Recently the Central District Planning and Building Committee headed by Michal Galkin addressed the issue of illegal preschools operating in Kiryat Hasharon in Netanya. Essentially the committee had to strike a balance between the genuine need for these facilities - and the very real desire of neighbors not to put up with the nuisance.

In that case the neighbors sued the city of Netanya, which had approved noncompliant use in seven cases, for such facilities, in ground-floor premises in buildings on Tiltan Street. The neighbors complained that the street had become a horror with traffic congestion when it was time to drop off and pick up the kids, and with garbage strewn about.

Moving on from planning issues such as the size of the areas approved for the noncompliant use, the committee found itself discussing issues that had no relationship at all to property and zoning factors - such as the number of parent-teacher meetings that should be held, how many parties each preschool could hold each year, how many children could be enrolled, what hours the place could operate, when children could play outside in the yard, and so on. The committee essentially decided to regulate the operation of these and illegal preschools by means of rules that heretofore were not anchored in the planning or any other property laws.

An original solution

The sheer, crying need for preschools in Kiryat Hasharon induced the city of Netanya to initiate something unknown in Israel: It is now, through a city-owned development company, building preschool facilities in a two-story building zoned only for that use. Once the building is finished it will be publishing tenders for private sector operators.

The person behind the development company is city councilwoman Shiri Haguel Saidon, a local resident, lawyer and mother of three, who has felt the pain and feels the matter of regulating day-care facilities to be of the utmost importance. Indeed, most women work and yet absurdly, after maternity leave, the state provides no day-care solutions for their offspring until they reach the age of three. Haguel Saidon now hopes to advance a similar initiative in other areas in Netanya.

While Netanya is groping for solutions, not so Tel Aviv, where preschools continue to operate on a "pirate" basis, being set up in appropriate places for children only to find themselves shut down almost immediately because of complaints from irritated neighbors.

But one should not assume that obtaining a noncompliant-use permit is the end of the story. First of all, getting the permit costs a fortune: The permit-seeker has to hire a lawyer, an architect, other experts and professionals, and the permit itself costs a lot of money, says attorney Galia Shmilovich Greengard. A would-be preschool owner may not realize in advance just how much this will cost, she notes: Indeed, these "pre-establishment expenses" can range anywhere from NIS 75,000 to a quarter of a million shekels - and there's no saying the city will even grant the permit. Also, it may be valid for no more than three years, with extension options.

Shmilovich Greengard advises interested parties to consult with lawyers and other professionals who know about the city's policies vis-a-vis granting noncompliant use permits in a given area before starting the process. "I wouldn't advise renting a property on a small, narrow, one-way street without parking," she says, as an example.

Shmilovich Greengard notes the opposite example of Pinchas Rosen Street in north Tel Aviv, "where almost every second house is a preschool. That's because it's a big, wide street with parking bays and ground-floor apartments with gardens. A lot of bigger facilities moved there. All north Tel Aviv brings the kids there."

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, the municipal division charged with inspecting nursery schools and kindergartens works overtime. The Education Forum at City Hall asked the mayor to ease up on the restrictions relating to preschools, but Mayor Ron Huldai insists the city is complying with the law: "The city has no choice but to act as it does. We do everything we can and will support any legislation that regulates day care, including licensing and standards. Care for infants has not been regulated by law in Israel and remains a lacuna. It is a national problem, not a Tel Aviv one."

The natural place for day-care places for little ones are, naturally, in city centers, within walking distances of homes. In fact, preschools sometimes operate in areas zoned for employment uses, such as in Em Hamoshavot in Petah Tikva or industrial zones, or in places like Ramat Hahayal in Tel Aviv.

In fact, all that needs to be done is for local planning committees to create a legal platform for day-care facilities to operate, by defining that usage in municipal plans. Yet they don't.

"Most of the planners are men and most view preschools as an unreasonable nuisance in residential buildings," says Deputy Mayor Lehavi.

Biran thinks the answer lies in the solution found for gas stations (in industrial zones ) and homes for the disabled (in residential areas ) - neither of which had had immediate solutions. The answer? An amendment to planning laws, requiring all residential neighborhoods to have buildings earmarked for these uses. This solution bypasses national master plans and neighbors wouldn't be able to object on the grounds that the preschools are breaking the planning laws.