Breckenridge child care questions: Scholarships go primarily to town employees, residents
Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series that will explore the specifics and beneficiaries of the Breckenridge child care scholarship program in light of two ballot questions that both the town and Summit County government are looking to put before voters to fund early childhood education programs. Part two will appear in Tuesday’s edition and will provide a financial breakdown of the scholarship program. Part three will appear the following day with a closer look at the various child care options in Summit County and the kind of care provided by local child care centers.
BRECKENRIDGE — In 2007, Elisabeth Lawrence was a single mom, running a small retail business in Breckenridge and trying to cover the cost of her 2-year-old daughter Zoe’s child care.
“It was really hard,” Lawrence said. “The cost was astronomical.”
For full-time care at one of Breckenridge’s centers, the bill could amount to $1,200 a month and that was if children could get a place in one of the facilities at all. A baby boom in Breckenridge had overwhelmed the centers’ capacity and waiting lists for enrollment were a year long. Many parents, Lawrence among them, signed their children up for care as soon as they learned they were pregnant.
Inside the centers there were problems as well, local officials say. The tuition fees charged to parents, though difficult enough for some families to cover, didn’t reflect the actual cost of the care and teachers, frustrated by low pay, moved on quickly. Timberline Learning Center, a facility that has about 20 faculty positions, went through more than 90 employees in a single year, officials said.
Then the Breckenridge Town Council stepped in with a plan and a sizable government subsidy to back it up. Elected officials initiated the construction of a new child care center to address the waiting list and instructed the existing centers to begin raising tuition to cover the actual cost of care. Teacher salaries were to increase, with the aim of reducing turnover, and the town implemented a child care scholarship program for local families and employees to help them cover the rising tuition rates. For Lawrence, whose daughter had been in child care for years when the new program rolled out, it meant not only well-timed assistance, but also a higher quality of care for her daughter.
“It really made a world of difference,” she said. “It didn’t pay for the care, it just helped supplement, but we immediately saw the difference. Teachers that were constantly changing over stayed longer. There was so much good stuff that came out of it.”
Now, with the revenue source currently sustaining the program set to expire next year, the Breckenridge Town Council is asking voters to approve a 1.652 mil property tax that will generate an estimated $800,000 per year to keep it going. They say the program helps middle-class families struggling with the high cost of living make ends meet and stay in Breckenridge, maintaining the real-town feel that makes the community attractive to many visitors.
“You see the struggles that places like Vail and Aspen have to keep middle class,” Councilwoman Jen McAtamney said. “(This program) really helps those middle class families who are living paycheck to paycheck. It is a very big commitment to decide to live here because we live in a resort community, so wages are low. We’re trying to get families through those few years (before Kindergarten) because they are the backbone of the community.”
Recent surveys show significant support for the council’s child care initiative — more than 60 percent of voters say they’ll back the tax question — but not everyone is on board. Some taxpayers balk at subsidies that have climbed into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and benefit only a fraction of Breckenridge residents. Meanwhile, rumors have spread that scholarships were going to families that didn’t live in the area or didn’t financially need the assistance.
“I just think it’s wrong for the citizens of Breckenridge and Summit to be subsidizing day care,” Upper Blue resident Debbie Tyber stated in an email to the Summit Daily. “I know things can be difficult here, but when I was raising my kids, we relied on friends and family for help.”
In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, roughly 150 families and just short of 200 children were served by the scholarship program.
Most of the parents — 70 percent — who receive assistance through the scholarship program both live and work in the Upper Blue Basin, according to data provided by the town. Twenty-six percent work in the area but live elsewhere and 4 percent are residents of the Upper Blue who are employed elsewhere.
The data shows the majority of families who receive assistance — close to 60 percent in 2011 — make 80 percent or less of the area median income (AMI): a maximum of 70,000 a year for a family of four. In most cases, both parents work and for a handful of families the parents hold three, four or even five jobs between them.
Their employers represent hundreds of local businesses and government agencies. A number of the recipients work for local fire departments, police departments and the school district, while many others are employed by one of the local ski resorts. Some are self employed and a few reported they are full-time students.
There are exceptions, however. In the 2011-12 school year, a fraction of the families in the scholarship program reported at least one parent was unemployed or a stay-at-home mother. The same year 11 families, 9 percent of those receiving scholarships, also reported incomes between 121 and 150 percent of AMI, up to approximately $132,000 for a family of four in 2011.
The scholarship program is administered by Summit County non-profit Early Childhood Options.
Only Breckenridge voters will be able to cast ballots on the Breckenridge tax question. A separate countywide ballot question to fund the Right Start program will appear on all Summit County ballots. Breckenridge voters will be able to vote on both questions.
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