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Investments Needed to Address Chaffee County Childcare Crisis

A presentation by Chaffee County Early Childcare Council (CCECC) Director Sarah Romack and Chaffee County Community Foundation (CCCF) Executive Director Betsy Dittenber to the Monday work session of the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) laid out the stark situation faced by Chaffee County working parents desperate for quality childcare options and the lack of options in the county.

The two asked for the BoCC to play a more active role in helping to address the crisis and laid out three options for county government to consider.

The shocking closure of the Chaffee Childcare Initiative program at The Schoolhouse in Poncha Springs by the Chaffee Department of Human Services (DHS) and more than a dozen armed Chaffee Sheriff’s Deputies on January 24 ended the early childhood center placement of 24 young children and terrorized some two dozen working parents and families.

Chaffee County Early Childhood Council

“It shows you how challenging it is to be a childcare provider — all the requirements and they don’t get paid very well,” said Romack speaking last week about the county’s childcare centers.

“In Chaffee County, they have the most responsibility and the lowest pay and the worst benefits. But they’re supposed to follow these licensing regs perfectly, with no mistakes, and some centers are doing their due diligence and some are trying their best.”

“We’re always trying to recruit new childcare providers,” Romack explained last week. But she added that attempts to get other early childhood providers to take on some of the children who had attended The Schoolhouse have been largely unsuccessful. As of last week, only one center had agreed to take more children.

“I did just receive an update from the Montessori School in Buena Vista that had some more spots, she confirmed on Thursday. “I don’t have direct contact info for these [Schoolhouse] families, so I have to refer those centers with extra spots to the DHS. But these are in Buena Vista, so for a Salida family that’s a ways. And with additional mileage costs … it’s more expense. I hope it will be helpful for at least somebody.”

Romack went on to point out that the state isn’t necessarily consistent in how it monitors licenses. “I’ve heard of other stories with far worse scenarios playing out and centers not being closed. So with this one, it’s very confusing and it’s not very clear. She confirmed what Ark Valley Voice had already learned from conversations with a state licensing Department of Early Childhood Communications Manager; that the early childhood licenses in this region are contracted to be handled by Goodwill Colorado. The contract is managed from Colorado Springs in El Paso County.

She said that “One of the many challenges of being a childcare provider is the liability. If this had happened in a family childcare home, they don’t have money for legal fees.”

Romack and Dittenber said that now, weeks later, most of those Schoolhouse parents are still scrambling for safe childcare options.

Romack says that sadly, some have quit their jobs or gone back to half-time (or less) to deal with the situation of not having access to any kind of daycare, let alone early childhood education. Some have even lost their health benefits due to having to cut their hours. All of the families are stressed, angry, and losing hope.

“I cannot stress enough that qualified childcare staff is one of the most challenging hurdles for our community,” said Dittenber.

Romack and Dittenber pointed out that there are three elements that make licensed childcare possible in this community: licensable physical spaces, operational funding, and qualified staff.

“I cannot express strongly enough that Childcare is Everyone’s Issue. The positive benefits of quality early education not only set children up for social, emotional, and academic success throughout their lives, these benefits also allow for a stronger economy, a more robust workforce, and they create a more vibrant and resilient community. Equally, the lack of childcare has negative impacts that reverberate across our community in a number of ways.”

“The goal of the Chaffee Early Childhood Council is always to expand the childcare capacity in the county,” said Romack. “But they cannot do it overnight. And almost overnight is exactly what the Chaffee Early Childhood Council has faced in dealing with the uphill battle faced to come up with more early childhood education slots.”

This is occurring at the same moment it is charged by the state with managing the rollout of the new free, Colorado Pre-kindergarten program. She says the council has pursued every opportunity to support the very fragile and insufficient childcare network that Chaffee County now faces.

Romack’s collaborative, comprehensive approach has not been enough to overcome not just the hesitation felt by so many of the county’s childcare centers to take on more children. In fact, many center providers have expressed their outright fear that if they take on more children or take the children from The Schoolhouse, that they too might face charges from the Department of Early childhood Education.

Romack has pointed out that the 24 childcare slots at Chaffee Childcare Initiative program at The Schoolhouse took four long years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to create. But the county doesn’t have four years to replace those slots — parents need safe, quality childcare solutions now.

The two proposed three possible strategies in their presentation to the Chaffee BoCC, that they say could help address the current childcare crisis.

Chaffee County undertaking a childcare assessment and strategic planning process.

This in-depth study would uncover the opportunities and resources required to meet childcare needs in Chaffee County. With this data, we can create a countywide strategy to help move investments from a variety of funding sources forward in a comprehensive, collaborative way.

Incentives for landlords to allow their rental properties to be used as in-home childcare spaces

Individuals in our county are interested in hosting in-home childcare, but one of their biggest hurdles is consent from rental property landlords. Incentivizing landlords could help open up numerous in-home childcare operations.

Early Childcare Workforce Development Investment

The CCCF and the CCECC  made a direct appeal to the BoCC to invest a portion of the funds of the county’s lodging tax into early childcare education workforce development through the Early Childhood Professional Training Program, which has been designed by CCECC.

“Investing in the CCECC program will provide immediate support to the struggling network of childcare providers so that our county does not lose more childcare spots, and it will also help build the early childcare workforce,” explained Dittenber.

The two women pointed out that funds from the county’s lodging tax could be combined with state funding for scholarships and other resources to build a comprehensive support network for the county’s existing and future childcare providers. According to Romack and Dittenber, this could directly address the current loss of 24 childcare spots before the county loses even more childcare slots.

“Our hope is that the Board of County Commissioners will conclude from today’s presentation that proactive investment in early childcare workforce development is necessary to creating more childcare opportunities and to preserving the fragile network we currently have,” said Dittenber. “I encourage you to consider taking a greater leadership role in our county’s childcare crisis.”

As Romack and Dittenber made very clear; Chaffee County’s childcare crisis is not going to go away by itself. None of us can look the other way. Safe, quality childcare is everyone’s issue.

Now it would appear that there is a ball in the Chaffee BoCC court, and the county awaits any action steps that might offer leadership in this crisis.

Ark Valley Voice staff contributing to this piece Stephen Hall and Jan Wondra.