Childcare squeeze tightens around Summit County | SummitDaily.com

Childcare squeeze tightens around Summit County

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado

BRECKENRIDGE ” The impending closure of Kinderhut, the licensed childcare and ski school facility at Peak 9 in Breckenridge, will leave scores of local families ” as well as the town ” scrambling to find places in other existing childcare centers around the town and county.

Kinderhut is slated to shut down at the end of the season, as Vail Resorts takes over the space in the Beaver Run complex at the ski area base.

“There’s definitely a shortage of options,” said Mary Jo Sokolowski, a 28-year-old single mom, whose daughter, Camille, has been a three-day-per-week Kinderhut regular. “I think it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t have much hope of getting a spot in another center right now,” Sokolowski said, describing how she juggles her jobs as a massage therapist and property manager, along with trying to make sure her daughter is well cared for.

Sokolowski said she might consider a home childcare option, perhaps looking for a part-time nanny. She’s not alone in her dilemma.

“I think it’s going to impact the whole community. There are going to be a lot of people looking for spaces,” said Mike Christy, a custom homebuilder who lives in Placer Valley, just over Hoosier Pass. “We’ve had (our daughter) Kaileen in there for the season, and we’re trying to get her into other facilities. But if you don’t get in at the ground level, it’s really hard to find a spot.”

For Christy, the lack of childcare options will trigger a shift to another position with his company so that he can spend more time with his daughter.

But not everyone has that luxury.

“Right now, as it stands, we don’t have any other options,” said Breckenridge resident Lisa Miller, whose two-year-old, Evan, has been in Kinderhut for about a year. “We both work full-time just to be able to live in Summit County,” Miller said, describing her position with a local real estate company and her husband’s construction job.

Before Miller found a spot for Evan at Kinderhut, she was taking him to daycare at Copper Mountain, then driving back to Breckenridge to go to work.

That was less than ideal, given concerns about road closures, for example. Along with the added commute, Miller said she was constantly thinking about how she might not be able to get back to Copper to pick up her son.

“I’ve been talking to other parents a lot about this. Some of them are frantic,” she said. “They’re trying to find a day here, a day there … We’ve been calling other centers every month to ask about available spots,” Miller said.

Local officials and childcare providers are well aware of the impending crunch and are working together to fill the gap in childcare slots until the Breckenridge decides on the best location and size for a new facility.

In a best-case scenario, a new center could be up and running in a little more than a year, said Breckenridge Town Councilmember Jennifer McAtamney, emphasizing that the discussions encompass not only childcare, but other factors like future placement of affordable housing and other residential developments.

The town is considering a piece of land near the new police station as a potential location for a new center. But until then, existing programs and centers will likely have to boost their offerings, putting the squeeze on an already tight supply of childcare spots in the town and wider region.

“We need to understand what our needs are between now and building. The reality is, we’re going to have to ramp up other programs,” McAtamney said.

Some relief will come from Vail Resorts, which has committed to help address the need for infant and toddler care, where there is a particular shortage. McAtamney said those talks are still in very early stages, with no details on how many places might be available and what the cost would be.

McAtamney said that, based on information provided by Kinderhut, up to 300 local families will be affected by the Kinderhut closure, including 36 regularly scheduled winter spots, and another 74 spots in Kinderhut’s popular summer program. A number of drop-in users will also be affected.

“That (drop-in) number is a little harder to get your arms around,” said McAtamney, who also serves on the town’s affordable housing and childcare task force. The group is scheduled to meet with local child care operators this week to get a better grasp of what the short-term need will be.

Beaver Run last year announced that it would lease several thousand square feet of commercial space to Vail Resorts instead of several local businesses, including Kinderhut. The childcare center was originally slated to close at the end of last season. But the announcement triggered a community outcry and Vail Resorts subsequently gave Kinderhut a one-year extension.

The long-simmering issue of childcare suddenly was high-profile. After the April town council election, it became one of the highest priorities for elected officials with more than $1 million in the town’s budget potentially earmarked for construction of a new center, according to town manager Tim Gagen.

Breckenridge’s willingness to put its money where its mouth is on the childcare front was applauded by Summit County Early Childhood Options director Lucinda Burns.

“I hope that what Breckenridge is doing becomes a model for the rest of the county and the state,” Burns said, referring to the town’s commitment to addressing the issue in a meaningful way. “They’ve made an important policy decision to be a resort town where people can afford to live,” Burns said.

“Childcare can’t sustain itself in a private economy,” Burns said. “The cost of childcare is more than what we charge parents. We can’t just keep saying we’ll raise the rates.”

Breckenridge is preparing to step up on that front as well, said Town Councilmember John Warner.

“We feel very strongly that childcare providers should be paid a living wage,” he said, referring to a block of council members who favor committing public funds to subsidize those wages. “We’re waiting to hear from the childcare community what an appropriate level would be. The Town is behind it,” he said.

Warner said that by juggling some of the town’s existing tax revenues, the council is in a position to free up some $300,000 per year specifically to help subsidize childcare provider wages, at least for the next six years when a voter-approved mill levy expires.

The childcare crunch is not a new problem, Burns explained. A spiral of factors, including low wages for childcare providers and expensive land, have long conspired to keep quality childcare in short supply. And tougher state-mandated requirements for licensing and training will make it even more difficult in the next few years, she said.

One of the biggest issues is hiring and retaining qualified staff, Burns said, explaining that simply building a new facility isn’t enough. Across Summit County, there’s a 45 percent annual turnover rate in childcare staff, which is not only frustrating and time-consuming for operators, but also affects the well-being of the kids ” especially the infants and toddlers who benefit the most from consistent care, Burns said.

It takes political and social will to tackle these issues, as demonstrated by Breckenridge’s childcare action plan, and by Summit County voters, when they approved $600,000 annually in Right Start spending recently via a .5 mill levy increase. That funding helps pay for financial assistance for families, recruitment of staff and even can go toward facility improvement grants, she added.

Does the childcare crunch have a serious impact on the local economy? What can and should local governments do to deal with the issue? Weigh in with your thoughts by clicking the “comment” button at the top of this story.


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