Key Points:

Four well-dressed, well-spoken women sit in a semicircle at Kohia Teachers' College, facing their leaders.

There is Pats Kinnaird, chairperson of Mission Bay kindergarten with her treasurer who is armed with a thick file of expertly laid-out accounts, Andrea Jacobson, from Ponsonby Kindergarten, and a lone representative from Howick. Together with their committees they put in hundreds of hours a year to run, fund and support their local kindergartens.

And today, they hear, they are no longer relevant.

On the other side of the circle are Jeremy Drummond, the unusually named female president of the Kindergarten Council, and Tanya Harvey, the energetic young general manager of the Auckland Kindergarten Association (AKA). An accountant by trade, Harvey started out helping kindergarten committees with their budgets.

Over the next hour the couple convince the small audience their committees have become a thing of the past. As they put it, there are now only around 12 "pure" committees servicing the 107 kindys in the greater Auckland area.

Mission Bay and Ponsonby are two of them - and they are are living in a bubble and out of step with the rest of the region's kindys.

By "pure" Harvey means committees that have a chairperson, finance person plus enough members to form a quorum, meaning kindergartens like Mission Bay and Ponsonby largely run their own finances, fundraise, employ their own teacher aides and administrators, pay the running costs of their kindergartens - and run a small surplus. The other 95-odd kindys are largely administered by teachers, backed by the AKA head office.

Now it is time, says head office, to bring all kindergartens under the same system - which means under the formal and financial control of the AKA. And although they have been following the rules, these increasingly slump-shouldered women soon realise, the minority must join the majority.

Harvey and Drummond say the present committee system is not working. It is hard on parents. Families where both parents work - increasingly the norm - don't have time to get involved with committees.

Some lower decile kindys find even the word "committee" off-putting and daunting. The turnover of children is too rapid to give enough stability to committees, and astoundingly, they cite one case where a treasurer prevented a teacher from buying more crayons because he or she wanted the kindy's funds in the bank earning interest.

The women sit there stunned. "This is how we thought all kindys operated," says Jacobson whose committee raised more than $10,500 over the past year to paint their kindy. "What about all that fundraising?"

"Oh we'd still like you to do that," smiles Harvey, tapping her red, pointy-toed boots.

Sitting in this quiet room, listening to the energetic former accountant and Drummond, a lawyer, their point-of view sounds so civilised it is difficult not to agree. The social structure of New Zealand families has changed to a point where it is clearly difficult for people to put their time and effort into unpaid work. People in less-advantaged suburbs are struggling. Obviously the more privileged should be pleased to subsidise them.

Certainly the women from today's group come from affluent suburbs. Those who attended a similar meeting this morning were from Lady Cobham Kindergarten in Orakei, Glendowie and Pigeon Mountain. Tonight's group will probably be the same.

But these women are not here because they are bored stay-at-home mums with time on their hands. All had professional careers before starting their families. Their interest is because under the new kindergarten structure, not only do they become dinosaurs, but also their kindergartens will be financially disadvantaged - Ponsonby by $12,500 a year, Mission Bay by around $10,000.

Says Kinnaird, a mother of three children who have all been through Mission Bay Kindergarten: "For us it's a crazy situation. We get the 20 hours 'free', pay a donation to head office and our kindy's $10,000 behind a year. How are we going to explain this to our parents?"

The changes were signalled abruptly, in late June - and probably before the AKA had ironed out the wrinkles. Just before the 20 hours free legislation came in on July 1 Ponsonby parents got a letter from the kindergarten committee asking them to pay an extra 50c per hour "optional donation".

Next came the kindy's July newsletter outlining the changes required by the AKA to coincide with the new legislation. Individual kindy committees were abolished and would be replaced by family and whanau groups. Kindys could no longer charge small fees, such as the $20 per child per term they used to buy fruit and crackers for morning and afternoon teas. Rather than being financially self-governing they would be run by finance support people provided by the AKA.

At first the changes did not seem overly serious. Because parents were under the impression the 50c optional payment most had already agreed to pay would come back to their own kindy, they calculated they would be financially better better off.

However, when the AKA's position was "clarified" in the next newsletter, wonder turned to outrage. The 50c top-up must be paid to the AKA to cover administration and running costs.

In the case of Ponsonby, this meant the AKA would be $85 (morning children) to $37 (afternoon children) per term better off after the 20 free hours change - while the kindy had a shortfall of between $36.80 and $23.20 a child.

Jacobson (who is also my daughter-in-law) was angry enough to ask me to investigate.

"Parents are furious. Kindys I've talked to (Ponsonby, St Heliers and Freeman's Bay) estimate they will be down by around $12,000 a year," she said. "The kindy teachers are too scared to talk. Parents hate the thought of losing financial control of their kindys and want to retain the right to finance them through parent donations."

At Mission Bay, says Kinnaird, "paying 50c to head office would jeopardise our ability to employ our administrator and our teacher aide - never mind if we wanted to do any capital improvement - without additional fund-raising".

Moreover, they say, the system had been going so smoothly. Mission Bay's committee, which charged $4 for ordinary sessions and $4.50 for their longer sessions on Mondays and Fridays, had immaculate accounts. Ponsonby, which did it a different way with a term "donation" of $200 (for morning children) and $120 (for afternoon children) for five mornings or three afternoons a week, had managed, with fundraising, to meet many extraordinary expenses.

Now, after the Government's "free" funding, the top-up donation for Ponsonby kindy (including the AKA's "voluntary payment) will be $108 a term for morning children and $74 for afternoon children.

But, as Harvey explains over and over again, the new system suits the majority. Two-thirds of its kindys, a third of which are also low-decile funded, are better off. Only the "dozen-odd" more affluent kindys are disadvantaged. And, goes the subtext, they can afford it.

The AKA, the largest child care provider in the country, and dragging a 100-year history and high public expectations behind it, is definitely under pressure. It also has its own agenda.

Over the last few years, in response to falling rolls in working-class suburbs, the organisation has opened a business arm and moved into all-day child care. Drummond says they had little choice. "Enormous effort has been put into social engineering. Funding is weighted in favour of all-day pay rates."

And traditional kindys, which suit non-working parents or families with nannies, are suffering - especially in working-class areas. Kindergartens, including Myers Park and Sandringham, now operate between 7.30am and 5pm alongside traditional three-hour morning and afternoon sessions. Laingholm and Bairds offer 9am-3pm care. "And we're looking at Wellsford at the moment - offering sessional and full-time," says Harvey.

The AKA is also cash poor. Bulk funding payments, which have not increased for several years, have fallen behind costs and will not cover a recent pay increase for teachers - ironic given it is part of a Government pay round.

The association could also do with three more staff, better and bigger facilities at head office, plus money to help kindys with capital and operational costs. Their attempt to claw back 50c out of this confusion is understandable. And, stresses Harvey, it is not a direct charge, but a "voluntary payment".

Which, points out Kinnaird, makes it a high-risk strategy. "Putting their budget against income that's not guaranteed is quite a financial risk."

As she explains, Mission Bay Kindergarten has made it clear that parents can pay the 50c donation to the AKA or directly to the kindy "and the majority of parents, at this stage, have chosen to pay it to the kindy".

Probably the affluent kindys can't have it both ways. As Harvey infers, perhaps those who have paid their 50c "optional payment" would be considered for help with capital and running costs from head office ahead of those who do not.

Is this a case of a power-mad central office or just another example of the contortions to which child care centres have to perform to implement Steve Maharey's 20 free hours policy?

Former Auckland Kindergarten Council president, Victoria Carter, says the AKA - and kindergartens - needed to change to keep up with modern parents' needs. "Removing the treasurers would've happened sooner if I'd been there," she says. "Those committees put enormous burdens on volunteers and it was exceptionally hard to get a committee together in lower socio-economic areas."

On the other hand, good communication with both parents and kindy committees is crucial. "I think it's a balancing act to satisfy the larger organisation, pay your teachers and not make your committees feel worthless."

Jacobson is convinced both the Government and the AKA have not-so-secret agendas. "I feel like we've been sold a move back to centralised power and money-holding under the disguise of some sort of social blackmail," she says. "There is not one of us who wouldn't want to help the struggling kindys in our area, but did the Government really want AKA head office to take half of the value of its 20 hours free payment? Because, when you strip out the slippery words like 'optional charges' and 'donations', that's what's happened."

Kinnaird agrees, pointing out that the Mission Bay Kindergarten is going through social change as well (over the past two years the number of working mothers on her committee has more than doubled to seven out of 10) and the Government and the AKA have made it difficult for committees to keep their parents enthusiastic - and keep paying up. "

The 20 free [hours] terminology makes it difficult to face up to our parents and say, 'Yes it's free, but now you have to pay 50c to the AKA plus a donation to the kindy'. It makes it a bit of a mockery to say it's free. I would like to see the AKA accept that some kindergartens are going to be able to be self-sufficient and some of them aren't. For those that can, give them the scope to retain their community spirit, remain self sufficient - and keep providing excellent early childhood education for our kids - at minimal cost to the state."