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Aspen-area childcare tougher to find as economy improves

From left, Everleigh Martinez, Griffin Ford, Sasha Ray and Rio Metcalf play Wednesday in the Waddler Room for 12- to 18-month-old children at the Early Learning Center in Aspen.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

An old problem has resurfaced with the resurgence of the Aspen-area economy.

Many child care providers in the middle and upper Roaring Fork Valley say demand is once again outpacing supply as more people have returned to full-time jobs in the past couple of years. The shortage is particularly acute for infant and toddler care, according to multiple sources connected to child care in the valley.

Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, a sort of clearinghouse for child care services in Pitkin County, said if parents approached her today seeking infant care, she couldn’t do much for them.

“There is probably one place right now that I could send them,” Ritter said.

“We don’t have another square inch to put kids.”Michelle Oger, Blue Lake Preschool

Expecting couples are exploring their options before the child’s birth and, in extreme cases, some parents are inquiring about waiting lists before they even conceive.

“I think we’re going to start pushing the limit for all ages,” Ritter said.

Lack of choices for child care, like lack of affordable housing, is part of life in the Roaring Fork Valley, but demand eased during the recession. Unemployment or part-time work meant more parents were spending time at home.

“We really saw a decrease in the number of days that kids came,” said Michelle Oger, director of Blue Lake Preschool, one of the largest in the midvalley.

Parents also had less money available for child care, so they pieced it together — swapping with neighbors, depending on grandparents and doing it themselves and sending their children to Blue Lake two or three times per week rather than four or five.

“Even in the recession, we slowed down, but it wasn’t, ‘Oh my God, we have no kids,’” Oger said.

However, there’s been a “big increase” in demand over the past two years and a return of waiting lists. The preschool can take 30 preschoolers. There are 60 on the wait list.

The renewed demand has Blue Lake expanding its space. It removed one bathroom to expand its slot for infant care to a total of 10 children. It expanded after-school care from 28 to 45 children.

Now the preschool is expanding interior space onto what was a deck to add 600 square feet for a commercial kitchen, a small dining area and enough space to add two preschool spots. The preschool raised $100,000 for the project and is seeking another $50,000.

Oger said the staff will be thankful when the project is finished this spring and the art tables no longer have to be cleared to serve lunch.

The facility is licensed for 105 children — 10 infants, 20 toddlers, 30 preschoolers and 45 after-school children. The actual number of children is higher because some don’t attend every day. Blue Lake is now maxed out.

“We don’t have another square inch to put kids,” Oger said. “I just feel bad when people call.”

“Waiting game” for parents

Melissa Goldyn discovered the Roaring Fork Valley’s child care shortage firsthand when she and her husband, a valley native, moved to the midvalley from Fort Collins.

“We’ve been trying to find child care since August,” she said. “We’re just playing the waiting game right now.”

They have a 16-month-old daughter. She can get into Blue Lake Preschool two days per week. Goldyn’s husband arranges his schedule so he can stay home one day, and they also use a home provider, but they’re aiming for at least one more day in a licensed child care facility. Goldyn, a veterinarian, said the lack of child care has limited how much she can work.

They checked other facilities but found waiting lists of up to two years.

“I was pretty blown away,” she said, especially since there were child care options in Fort Collins for all ages.

Goldyn said she and her husband would like to have another child. Her experience makes her wonder if she needs to talk to child care centers about getting on a waiting list even before they have the child, she said.

Child care facilities are strained in Aspen, as well.

“We’ve seen a huge bump in our youngest years,” said Claire Driscoll, outreach director at the Early Learning Center. There appears to be a trend of young professional couples having children and then coming in few months later and looking for care.

The Early Learning Center, one of the largest child care facilities in Aspen, has a full-time capacity for eight infants Monday through Friday. Twenty families are on a waiting list.

“More infant care would be great,” Driscoll said.

But providing infant care is demanding. Colorado law allows as many as five infants per care provider.

“True, quality infant care” reduces that ratio to two or three children per provider, said Laurie Soliday, owner and operator of Solara child care in El Jebel.

“I get calls for infant care all the time,” Soliday said. She hasn’t added infant care because it doesn’t make financial sense. The ratio of providers to infants is high, and she said the expense has to be passed on to parents.

Aspen’s Early Learning Center is licensed for 107 children and it provides care for children ages 8 weeks to 5½ years. The overall occupancy rate is between 75 and 80 percent, with demand greatest for the limited infant care spaces, Driscoll said. Even with the openings, many families cannot get the exact days of care they desire, she said, and there is always a waiting list for infant care. The Early Learning Center is in the early stages of exploring whether to expand infant care, according to Driscoll.

Cost is an issue

Kids First and allied groups surveyed parents prior to the recession to gauge the need for child care and come up with a plan to provide it.

“Everything changed in the recession,” Ritter said.

Now the demand is back again. Demand can be inflated because parents often get on multiple waiting lists to improve their chances of getting in somewhere. However, the surveys and current preschool occupancies show the need is great and growing, Ritter said.

The three infant and seven toddler care facilities in Pitkin County are 91 percent full on average, Ritter said. The eight preschools are 95 percent full on average.

Kids First is working with the Basalt town government and Roaring Fork School District to try to find space for an additional provider in the midvalley. It is working with other partners to examine supply and demand upvalley. The key is to avoid crippling land costs, but it’s not easy to find cheap land.

“It’s not like any of us can wave a magic wand and create a building,” Ritter said.

While capacity is an issue, so is affordability.

“For a lot of families, the biggest barrier is the cost,” Ritter said. “It has to be affordable.”

Costs for one child going to child care five days per week year-round run $15,000 per year in the Aspen area, according to research by Kids First.

“It can be as much or more than rent or mortgage,” Ritter said.

Many families don’t qualify for assistance through a state fund simply because Aspen’s salaries are high, but the state formula doesn’t take the high cost of living in the valley into account, so Kids First helps families turned down by the state. It currently uses funds from an Aspen sales tax to subsidize child care costs currently for 51 Pitkin County families with 70 children.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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