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During their work session this week, the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) heard a proposal from a newly-constituted nonprofit, called Chaffee County Childcare, asking for significant funding to reopen The Schoolhouse for a program they call Ark Valley Preschool in time for the coming school year.

The nonprofit filed with the state of Colorado on April 26, 2023, and Chaffee County Community Foundation (CCCF) is its intended fiscal sponsor. They submitted a hefty ask of the county, asking for an upfront $100,000 to combine with a $133,000 pledge amount they have received in the community, to open The Schoolhouse under new management, with 24 preschool slots.

“Childcare is essential infrastructure and the need is acute,” said CCCF Executive Director Betsy Dittenber. “We are requesting potential funding so the Ark Valley Preschool can open this year, by August, and ask that you invest in this as an investment in the workforce.”

The Chaffee County childcare effort, includes  Chaffee County Childcare Board President Katie Patti, who was joined by Dittenber to present to the BoCC this week. Other board members include Sarah Brown, Whitney Kline, Ann Taylor, and Megan Strauss.

“I remind us that expanding childcare resources and slots is a goal of the Chaffee County Comprehensive Plan. We have to preserve the childcare we do have. We don’t want to lose anymore,” said Dittenber. “Increasing the number of childcare slots is a capital need here that could get match reimbursements. I can’t stress this enough.”

Dittenber outlined the needs to the BoCC, saying the county needs to find a way to support comprehensive childcare resources in our county. The Chaffee County Early Childhood Council is working hard and CCCF has been doing grantmaking for the past five years, working in a nonprofit capacity.

“CCCF has distributed about $2.9 million in grants over the last five years and our missions are communitywide,” said Dittenber. “We need partners for this growth plan. We are asking for $100,000 to get this new center open and also for you to consider doing a long-term commitment of $250,000 … childcare is connected to a strong workforce… it is connected to the workforce and to tourism. If we want to have a family-friendly community there is going to have to be an investment there.”

With that, she handed off the presentation to Patti, who was introduced as the president of the board and the person who would run the Ark Valley Preschool. The plan is for 24 slots at The Schoolhouse (the same number as before the abrupt shutdown in January 2023), assuming they can get the community investment to open by August 21.

“As you know, The Schoolhouse was closed on January 24, children were displaced, and none of the children were placed in the existing facilities. Some parents found spots but others haven’t. At the moment, we are the only facility with a license and 24 slots … We will use the same building,” said Patti. “The board that was there has resigned – there is a new board. We’re working with additional folks in the community to give this board what we need to handle reopening.”

“As a parent who went through this,” she added, “I don’t want to give them the lens that we won’t be around for five years. For those professionals whose children are going to come here, we need to rebuild community trust. This was not positive, for anyone – that is why we are coming to you, for other entities to rebuild trust with your involvement.”

She added that the entity has a new name – the Ark Valley Preschool – and will include a mix of former students and new students. “There will be new staff, and some staff were invited to be rehired after what happened, pending, we are given the opportunity to come back. There are new policies and procedures, we’re going to do it right.”

She went on to add that “when the state investigated our license they found an issue [she did not say what it was], and reinstated it within three weeks [of the January incident in which the sheriff’s office was called by the Chaffee Department of Human Services to shut down the facility.” By state law this could only have been done by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

“Because the police entered the premises, it was an automatic suspension of our license,” said Patti. “If it had been handled differently — and we want you to know, and Monica [Haskell] now knows this as well — other facilities have had an experience and an investigation by DHS,  but didn’t involve law enforcement.  They remained open, because it was handled differently.”

Saying that the new board is ‘all about solutions,’ Patti described the new preschool setup as one classroom specifically for universal pre-K, with the second classroom, varying based on hiring caregivers for the younger age group. She made a point of stressing the student-caregiver ratios, adding that the request they are bringing to the county includes “proper administrative setup”  that would include a substitute(s) on the payroll, and an administrative secretary to do the reporting paperwork required for licensing oversight, which would also involve  Chaffee Early Childhood Council Executive Director Sarah Romack.

She admitted that “if the original nonprofit (Chaffee Childcare Initiative) had had more cash in the bank and these [administrative] positions had been funded — we could have handled the downtime differently.” (The nonprofit had to lay off the entire Schoolhouse staff).

Patti and Dittenber laid out the financials, explaining that the effort would require $383,000 to open with 24 slots, and that $133,000 was already pledged. By comparison, when The Schoolhouse originally opened in 2018, it took $250,000 to open, raised in the community.  They presented a five-year plan with some options for county investment, with the proposal of an annual $250,000 county grant goal to get to 120 additional childcare slots in Chaffee County in the next five years.

Asked about the funds awarded last year to help with renovations to increase childcare slots at The Schoolhouse, that had come from accrued DHS funds, Patti said: “When The Chaffee Childcare Initiative had to lay off staff, they had to return the $124,000 from DHS so they would pay for that one week of care for all the parents during the investigation.”

“We understand that money is still there, if we could get it back, we can afford to hire back teachers, then after that, we could apply for the renovations in a later year,” she added. “We can’t do that sooner. We need to focus on the operations, and the care, and build our ability to get more grant money – it gives us a path.”

“I applaud everything you are trying to do – it is essential and it’s directly related to tax revenue income generated by the working parents,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. He asked about the chart versions presented during their presentation and whether this request was considered input in the 2024 budget cycle.

“These are three separate requests– reopening the Schoolhouse, for year one, then to further invest,” said Dittenber. “The bigger vision is an investment into not just this childcare center, but others in the county as well.”

“We all lament what’s happened and what’s led to this, but I’m really excited about the way the three of you have come together. It’s a comprehensive approach and I like this future focus,” said Commissioner Greg Felt, who recalled that a year ago, the BoCC met with Romack to talk about DHS funding of scholarships to prime the pipeline with childcare candidates.

The proposal was presented at a county work session, so no official action was taken. But it could be said that the clock is already ticking on preparations for the August 2023 school year.

Featured image: The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs. Photo by Jan Wondra.

Editor’s Note: For more about the situation at The Schoolhouse that led up to this meeting, follow this link.