Town of Breckenridge commits $150,000 to boost teachers’ pay

Ashley Donovan sits and eats lunch with her class at the Little Red SchoolHouse in Breckenridge in April. Teacher retention in daycare programs is one of the most important factors in quality child care. On Tuesday, Breckenridge Town Council committed an additional $150,000 to increase teachers' pay at the four childcare centers in town, a move that's designed to help improve teacher retention.
Kailyn Lamb / |

Breckenridge Town Council decided on Tuesday to spend $150,000 in next year’s budget on boosting teachers’ pay at four nonprofit early education centers on top of the more than $4.2 million the town has poured into its tuition-assistance program since 2007.

The newest request comes at a relatively small price tag compared to the overall budget council is crafting. Still, it sparked a debate about the financial burden of childcare and what role taxpayers should play in easing the strain on working families.

If the funding request was ever in doubt, those fears were allayed when Mayor Eric Mamula conducted a formal poll at Tuesday’s budget workshop and every council member voted for keeping the expenditure in the proposed budget.

What they couldn’t all agree on, however, was how best to deliver that money.

The newest request comes at a relatively small price tag compared to the overall budget council is crafting. Still, it sparked a debate about the financial burden of childcare and what role taxpayers should play in easing the strain on working families.

One idea floated Tuesday was to do it through a direct grant to the schools, giving them some flexibility regarding how each center might use it. The other was to have the schools raise tuition rates and the town put the $150,000 into expanding its tuition assistance program. The money would still make its way to the centers in that scenario, albeit less directly.

Some council members expressed concerns that supplementing teachers’ salaries with taxpayers’ dollars was a dangerous precedent, even though it’s been done before as recently as 2007. Meanwhile, Jennifer McAtamney, administrator of the town’s Child Care Program, said she worries that raising tuition rates would increase the finanical burden on local families who don’t qualify for assistance.

“Presumably, if you were going to do it though tuition, (the town) would have to expand the tuition assistance program and one of the things that would happen is when tuition rates get up to $84 a day, families who have multiple children and make $240,000 a year are paying $40,000 every year for childcare,” McAtamney said. “Maybe if you make $240,000 a year, you can handle that … but, for me, the thing that would be a struggle is the family I talked to today who have twins and only need two days of care a week.”

McAtamney said the family now pays about $1,000 a month. Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron inquired if the family is eligible for tuition assistance, and McAtamney replied they are not.

It’s not that the couple makes too much money, she said. Rather, it’s they’re not spending enough — at least 13 percent of their total income — on childcare to qualify.

The four nonprofit child care centers in Breckenridge are Carriage House, Little Red Schoolhouse, Timberline Learning Center and the Breckenridge Montessori, all in Breckenridge.

For the centers, it costs about half as much to accommodate a preschooler as it does to care for an infant or toddler. The difference passed on to parents is much less dramatic — only about $10 per child — and the effect is tuition for preschoolers ends up subsidizing care for the youngest children at the centers.

“If you call Carriage House and ask them what is their daily rate, they will tell you it’s $79.11 for an infant and a preschooler is $70,” she said responding to council’s questions about the cost for families. “People pay two rates, three rates or, at some schools, four rates, but the infants pay more.”

At $79 a day, a single child costs almost $20,000 a year, assuming that child is at the center five days a week.

Even without any tuition assistance, some of the cost is still being subsided by the town, and the real cost is actually significantly more than anything a local family pays.

For families with multiple children, the cost they must shoulder can quickly surpass what someone working full-time makes at his or her job, McAtamney said, adding that many of the teachers at the childcare centers in Breckenridge are underpaid compared to public school teachers in Colorado and Summit County.

“If we put all of the salaries together, including the directors (of the centers) who make $50,000 to $60,000, we’re at $15.64 an hour (on average),” she said before citing a study suggesting that a $16-an-hour wage is what it takes at a minimum to survive independently Summit County.

“Somehow we’ve got to get teachers up to a fair-market value,” Councilman Mark Burke said before asking pointed questions about how much effect $150,000 might actually have on bringing up the salaries and on teacher retention.

“One of the things that would be a huge win is five years,” McAtamney said in response to a question about measuring success. That’s about the same amount of time a child who is enrolled at one of the centers is expected to be there.

Some of the schools have to fundraise to cover small percentages of their budgets, and tuition is a big piece of their income. Other monies come from grants, like those offered by The Summit Foundation, but many of those grants are designed to cover capital projects, not operating costs.

“It’s a real conundrum for us because a lot of what we need is really operating,” McAtamney told council, adding that the centers have about 49 teachers altogether and roughly a tenth of them are at the bottom of the pay scale.

Ultimately, council decided to go with a direct grant to the centers. The discussion left some council members feeling like the town’s model for funding childcare centers is broken and wondering when the next funding request for early childhood education will surface, even though the $150,000 was framed as a one-time request.

Currently, the town’s tuition assistance program is funded through 2021.

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