Aspen forces work toward providing affordable child care

'we see people leave the valley, and new families don’t come here' without accessible child care

Upper valley governments and local employers are mobilizing to address the affordable child care crisis in Aspen and the surrounding area.

The city of Aspen has taken the lead by hiring a special projects manager to coordinate the effort, which now includes Pitkin County, nonprofits and large employers like the school district, the ski company, the hospital and a handful of other entities.

All of those organizations need professionals as part of their workforce and if there isn’t sufficient child care for working class families, the local economy and community suffers.

“It’s about the current workforce because we are seeing people not going back to their jobs,” said Shirley Ritter, director of the city’s sales tax funded Kids First program. “And we see people leave the valley, and new families don’t come here if there isn’t child care.”

At the Yellow Brick School where the city of Aspen operates Kids First, the wait list is often 50 deep, and most of them are infants.

As it stands now, there are 30 licensed child care spaces available for infants, 88 for toddlers and 293 for preschoolers in Pitkin County.

And with 137 babies being born a year in the county, the math doesn’t add up, noted Ron LeBlanc, the city’s special projects manager.

What also doesn’t add up is the economics of early childhood education, because it’s expensive to operate a preschool and the pay for teachers is woefully low. Couple that with expensive real estate, and it makes it extremely difficult to find a location for a facility that is affordable.

“Across the U.S. people refer to (early childhood education) as a broken business model,” Ritter said. “They can’t break even.”

The government can help, but it will come at a cost.

“I guess the policymakers are going to have some decisions to make about how much they want to spend toward this issue,” LeBlanc said.

The city was ahead of its time when Aspen voters in the late 1980s passed a sales tax to pay for child care.

It generates about $2 million a year and pays for the city’s day care program, as well as subsidies for child care providers and financial aid for working families.

“It is unique for a city to have taken a leadership role,” LeBlanc said. “It’s unique to like the 10th power because cities just don’t do that and to be aware of the issue back in 1988, the city deserves credit.”

But even with that revenue source, a dearth of options exists for local families.

And that’s why the issue has to be tackled with a unified effort, LeBlanc noted.

“When you look at what we’re talking about with the partnerships within the community, the term that I use is ‘civic infrastructure,’” he said. “The city has an obligation to be a leader but we’re not the only organization at the table so it has to be a community based partnership with all those entities and that’s what’s going to sustain the effort.”

The task of increasing child care capacity — both physical space and the size of a qualified educated workforce — is being addressed in multiple ways, according to LeBlanc and Ritter.

College bound

Colorado Mountain College is considering including degree and certification programming in order to provide trained professionals to local child care programs.

The city and CMC are drafting an intergovernmental agreement that could include designing a new child care facility, capital asset needs specific to child care instruction, exploring grants and other funding sources, housing for students, internships and work study options.

“The first part is working with CMC to create that pipeline to get the students in the program because if you go through the effort to create more space and you don’t have the teachers it’s not going to work,” LeBlanc said. “I think we have to work in parallel with the capacity piece, the financial sustainability piece and be there to partner with CMC.”

Working in tandem

Employers who have recognized the issue are willing to invest and collaborate with the city.

That includes implementing family friendly employment polices, like paid family leave, which is something the city is looking at as well, according to LeBlanc.

The coalition of entities also can advocate at the local, state and federal levels for legislation supporting paid family leave and funding for child care.

In terms of upping the pay for early child care educators, which ranges from $19.50 to $23.50, it may end up being a responsibility employers will have to take on, just like many do with providing affordable housing for their workers.

The challenge of expanding child care opportunities must include a path that is financially sustainable and also spreads the financial burden among various entities.

“My personal opinion is I think there has to be subsidy,” LeBlanc said. “The big employers are going to have to all pool funds to get it.”

The city is hiring an apprentice in its Kids First program who will receive the training and coaching, and then become a substitute teacher to build up the required hours to become certified, Ritter said.

Looking for county assistance

Pitkin County commissioners in November expressed interest in helping find solutions, recognizing the urgency of the need.

“Until there is a longer term solution we want to help in the short term,” said Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of human services.

Kids First recently offered up a menu of options for the county to invest in early childhood education and help meet the need, specifically for increasing the number of child care staff members.

The first option is for the county to fund a third full-time intern position who would be added to the workforce as a qualified lead instructor after working and training for as long as a year.

The cost for that option is $77,000 to cover wages, benefits and training.

The second option is for the county to pay for mental health services for early childhood teachers as part of an effort to retain qualified people in the workforce.

Ritter said a majority of early childhood teachers don’t feel they have enough support to meet the needs of some of the children they have in their classrooms.

The teachers also struggle with depression and stress and end up leaving the profession.

“We can’t afford to lose the people we’ve got,” Ritter said.

The county cost to provide teacher trainings and coaching around mental health would cost $55,000 annually.

The third option is emulating what Eagle County does for recruiting teachers with a $1,000 bonus to new hires after 60 days of employment.

In 2019, 50 new hires received the incentive, according to Eagle County.

“After this person is hired, he or she would be eligible for an education incentive through Kids First, as well as professional development funding to take college courses in early childhood education,” Ritter wrote in a memo to the commissioners. “This is all in recognition that early childhood teachers do not make a self-sufficiency wage, not even in comparison to K-12 teachers with comparable qualifications.”

That option is estimated to cost $45,000 annually.

The fourth opportunity for the county to help is providing capital to build or renovate space to be used as a child care facility.

Sundeen said she’ll discuss the options with commissioners in the near future.

“I think the board is going to want to help in some way,” she said.

Ritter acknowledged that the child care issue has been lurking for years but only recently has it gotten significant attention.

“There is more public will and certainly political will to get something done,” she said.