The grazing goats might give it away that the Silverado Children's Center is not your standard suburban baby-sitting setup. Or maybe the tip-off is the kids freely spilling paint all over the sidewalk and each other without a peep of protest from the adults. There are no children consigned to straight rows here, no grown-ups spouting strict rules.
The place is a creative free-for-all, just as parents want it in the canyons around Silverado.
Even as the well-heeled invade this cowboy culture holdout, "bureaucracy" remains a bad word and institutions like the children's center operate on community consensus. "This is a unique place," said Judy Lockridge, director of the center. "We keep our identity here."
The community mantra has always been live and leave the neighbors alone. So the canyon folk bristle at the notion of outsiders interfering with their day-care center.
But the close-knit canyon is cash-strapped. The community elders, otherwise known as the board of the Silverado Modjeska Parks District, dived into the books last winter and discovered that finances were in grim shape. They warned that bankruptcy loomed.
The parks district has an annual budget hovering around $100,000, derived mostly from local property taxes and a trickling of development-impact fees. Some years the area gets a boost from county and state grants. The district's books--which many argue are open to interpretation--suggest that tens of thousands of dollars have been spent over the years to keep the children's center operating, and that costly building repairs could bust the parks district budget.
Then some folks suggested the unthinkable: Maybe it was time to deed control of the center to someone else, perhaps the Orange Unified School District.
Parents were outraged at the suggestion. Angry community meetings ensued. And resolution still seems far off as the district struggles to preserve the local way of life without going broke.
"I'm not sure parks districts are even authorized to operate a day-care center," said Bob Hunt, vice president of the district.
The problem, Hunt said, is that it is unclear what, exactly, the district is and is not authorized to do. It's not beholden to the county, yet the county oversees its banking. The district is not supposed to run any business enterprises, yet it is charged with operating area recreational programs.
None of these questions mattered much before because there really wasn't much demand for services in the canyon.
The district established a makeshift day-care operation in the community center in the late 1980s, after a local survey suggested that was what residents wanted. A few years later, enrollment grew and the center moved into a few mobile buildings behind the Silverado Elementary School, where it remains.
Now there are other concerns. Like subdivisions creeping into the area, prompting the impoverished parks district to try to follow through with a local open-space plan drawn up years ago.
Hikers and equestrians accustomed to roaming on vast private tracts could soon be fenced out if the district does not move to protect easements drawn up in the plan. That costs money. And it costs more money to maintain that open space once it becomes district property.
It's a pattern that has played out in other Orange County communities. Land changes hands. Houses get built. Gates go up. And locals long for the good old days when it was all open space.
"Things are changing," said Jeff Dickman, chief of trail planning for the county. "The amount of private open space is dwindling." He said it is crucial for communities to move fast to preserve parkland to which they are entitled before it is covered with houses.
Then there are the building repairs needed in the canyons. A few big jobs can eat a year's budget.
A report Hunt wrote for the board this month questioned the legality of funding a children's center. He referred to the situation as a "gray arrangement" that was never approved by taxpayers and "expands on the district's originally approved sphere of activities."
Kris Ferguson, treasurer of the district, takes issue with him. She says the district is charged with providing recreational services. The day-care center, she said, is just that.
"It is really the only form of recreation provided out here," she said. "We are such a small community. There is no [youth soccer], no Little League. There is nothing like that here."
Ferguson also said the day-care center's budget is strained because only 40 kids are enrolled. There is room for at least 20 more, and area population projections suggest that the center will be full in the next few years, bringing in significantly more tuition revenue.
Parents are passionate about keeping the place independent. Cybele Rowe, an artist with a son at the center, said she looked at eight day-care centers and none compared to the one in the canyon.
"We wanted to send him to a school that would extend him, not confine him," she said. "All these other schools concentrated on focused learning. There was not a sound of laughter in the room. We don't need him any more focused."
She finds the thought of the besieged Orange Unified administration taking over too distasteful to even contemplate.
"Parents have a lot more control at this school," she said, standing across from a mosaic mural she created on the center's wall.
She was on a deck donated by another community member--a deck that would have cost the parks district more than $30,000 to build.
Rowe said there will always be volunteers to step forward to pay for the big stuff, because that's the canyon way.
Hunt isn't so sure.
"Volunteers are not going to be able to do the really big stuff," he said. "It costs a lot of money."