Opinion | Linda Harmon: Summit County leaders fight the good fight for child care | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Linda Harmon: Summit County leaders fight the good fight for child care

Linda Harmon
Positive Progressive Thinking

Providing early childhood education is challenging in 2022, especially in Summit County. Over 500 families are on the waitlist to attend one of Summit’s early childhood education centers — the largest waitlist in history. While our hardworking Democratic county commissioners are trying to work miracles, they are getting little financial support from the state or federal governments to address this issue.

One significant hurdle facing our county commissioners is the expense of building new child care centers to meet the huge demand.

“Our biggest problem is the infrastructure costs. The construction costs for the new center in the Smith Ranch neighborhood of Silverthorne are coming in double of what we budgeted,” Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said. She went on to add that there is also very little land to develop more centers.

In addition to the new site at Smith Ranch, the county is planning to build a new child care center at the expansion of Wintergreen in Keystone in partnership with Vail Resorts and developer Gorman & Co., Pogue said.

The commissioners are also having conversations with Lake Dillon Preschool about how the county can support them in expanding their capacity.

“While Gov. (Jared) Polis is creating an office of early childhood and he is moving the state toward universal pre-K, we are not seeing any state or federal money for infrastructure costs to build new centers,” Pogue said. “But we are working hard to see if we can add new centers where we are building affordable housing.”

Even if they can get more centers built, two problems still exist, including staffing and tuition.

“We need people to manage and work at the new centers,” Pogue said. “The good news: We have done a lot of work in child care employment thanks to the funds generated by Strong Futures.”

The Strong Futures Fund was a result of Ballot Measure 1A, which was passed by 60% of Summit County voters in 2018.

Lucinda Burns, executive director of Summit County’s Early Childhood Options and a member of the statewide Early Childhood Council Leadership Alliance, told the Summit Daily that the 2022 budget includes $746,000 for teacher compensation and $315,000 for teacher training and professional development.

And then there’s tuition. For many families, it is prohibitive, especially when child care in Summit County can cost more than a mortgage or rent. On the positive side, over $5 million of the Strong Futures Fund has been spent on tuition credits. In 2022, the budget for tuition credits is $1.8 million. These funds have been given to a variety of county residents including 17% to restaurant and hospitality workers, 14% to service workers, 14% to ski industry workers, 11% to town and government workers, 13% to health care workers and 10% to those working in education.

Burns believes with all this support from voters and the progressive way county leaders are using the funds to tackle child care needs, Summit County is a model for other counties, “particularly around providing early childhood education in a variety of settings, including family home child care in addition to licensed child care centers.”

She was excited to explain that one of Early Childhood Options’ goals is to increase the number of in-home, licensed family day cares, which they hope to have grants to support.

“If we can increase those opportunities, it could help many more families with young children,” Burns said.

Once more funds come in for Polis’ universal child care program, Pogue said the county plans to use that money to move tuition assistance down to 3-year-olds. This will also help workers in the county so they can continue to work.

It is apparent that our county leaders care deeply about this very important issue. Since studies show that children who attend preschool are more likely to succeed as adults, it is obvious that our county leaders know its value and importance.

We are lucky that our county commissioners, town leaders and an amazing nonprofit like Early Childhood Options are working so hard to find creative solutions. Hopefully the state and federal governments get the message soon, put more value in educating young children and start putting money into infrastructure costs to build more centers.

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