Last night I went to my first ever Stadtverordnetenversammlung at Oberursel’s town hall. Roughly speaking that’s probably best translated as “town council”, and the mixture of things being discussed reflects that. Things like bus shelters, roads, budgets and planning permission. In fact, it was the planning permission part that I was most interested in, as the Frankfurt International School and Mountain Lodge plans were on the Agenda.
In the end, there was little discussion about either of them. Instead, over half of the time allowed was spent discussing the level of Kindergarten fees.
It was obviously a popular topic as well, as over half of the local residents who were watching from the public seating were still there when the debate started – and they were still there when time was called on the sitting at 11pm.
The discussion started several weeks ago when the parents’ committees at the Kindergartens in the town were asked for their comments on a new set of fees.
Setting those fees is not an easy task, because there are so many requirements to be met. Obviously the Kindergartens themselves have to be able to work on what they receive, but both regional and national governments have a habit of passing laws or setting up guidelines that towns have to follow. Like how many places have to be available and not charging for the last pre-school year.
So when the preliminary information was set out to them, many committees were shocked at the level of the increase. One of the reasons affecting many families was the removal of the Geschwisterbonus – the sibling rule – meaning that a 2nd child paid less and a 3rd child none at all. This was also one of the first changes to be revoked, even before the debate last night.
And a debate it was. Much of the evening until then had been one vote after another on things that had already been discussed, or just questions and answers. Now the parties were on their feet and making speeches.
There was some discussion on why the parents had been informed so early, before the councillors had had a chance to discuss the proposals. There were even protests from members of the public when it was suggested that the committees were being “misused” in the process. However this was countered by the ruling coalition as being more open towards those affected, whilst at the same time accepting that the committees may have been unprepared to deal with the proposals as the members were not used to dealing with such bureaucratic things!
Another point of debate was the Härtefallregelung, a rule that supports low-income families who could not otherwise afford the Kindergarten places. The coalition (SPD, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, OBG) wanted this to be “re-instated”, causing a member of the opposition CDU to almost ridicule this by claiming that such a rule already existed, to which the coalition took great delight in reminding them that it was during a period of CDU/FDP government that the rule had been revoked.
Interestingly the representative of Die Linke – who only have one seat – suggested that the parents should not have to pay anything at all towards the kindergarten places – leading to applause from the watching parents, but receiving little response from anyone else.
In the end, there were two proposals on the table. The original one from the CDU, which wanted to limit increases in fees to 15% and spread them out over three years, and one from the coalition changing the original proposal to remove the 15% limit, re-instate the Härtefallregelung and to try to get back to the status quo of the parents paying one third of the costs of their kindergarten places.
This second proposal, technically called an Änderungsantrag, was then voted on step by step. Not surprisingly, the coalition voted for each part of the proposal, with the other parties sometimes voting in favour, sometimes against and sometimes abstaining. The Geschwisterbonus and Härtefallregelung were approved unanimously.
The motion was carried. But what does it mean for parents now?
Well since it was only setting out a structure for how the fees can be raised and not on the actual fees themselves, it does not actually change very much. The rule of thumb for parents to pay a third of the costs may be a useful guide, and long-term the guidelines may mean stability – or they may mean regular rises in fees when the costs are re-evaluated.
The internal discussions within the Rathaus will no doubt continue, and the item will no doubt appear on a future agenda for final approval.
As for my first visit to a Stadtverordnetenversammlung, I learnt quite a few new words of Beamtendeutsch that I will no doubt be explaining here in future posts.