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Balancing childcare needs

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Entrance to Aspen debate has raged for nearly three decades. An argument surrounding a lack of affordable housing seems to have gone on just as long.

But what do Aspenites rank as their third biggest problem? Working families would probably name childcare.

“It’s one of the top three problems, right up there with housing and transportation,” says Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, the city of Aspen’s childcare resource and referral agency.

The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that about 65 percent of Pitkin County mothers (traditionally, the parent who opts to remain at home) with children 5 years old and younger are working at least part time. It’s Ritter’s job to help find alternative care for the 400 children without parental supervision during the workday.

“The reality is, in this valley, an awful lot of parents have to choose childcare,” Ritter said. “A lot of people argue that there shouldn’t be infant care, there shouldn’t be toddler care, that those people should stay home with their babies. I think every single one of those parents would tell you that they would do that in a heartbeat if they could.”

Ritter wants to make sure that, when parents do choose daycare for their kids, they’ll have a variety of qualified options available. She also ensures that Pitkin County’s 13 licensed daycare centers have the resources to handle these children.

The economics of Aspen have created a few roadblocks for the childcare field, Ritter admits – costs are high for both parents and providers, putting the quality of Aspen’s childcare at risk. But Kids First, its customers and its supporters – including the Aspen Valley Community Foundation, one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s largest charitable organizations – are steadily working around them.

Childcare’s conundrum

There’s no need to remind citizens – especially those parents working full-time jobs – that Aspen is an expensive city. These families can end up paying nearly $40 per child for each day of care, according to Ritter’s estimates.

“If you’ve got one child, that’s over $10,000 a year for full-time [care], five days a week,” Ritter said.

According to the Colorado Office of Resource and Referral Agencies, or CORRA, the average cost of urban childcare in Colorado is $9,083 per year. The cost of care in rural areas is $5,727, so Aspen is nearly double the rural average at $10,000 annually.

“If you’ve got two children,” Ritter said, “I think you have to think seriously about whether you need to be going back to work or staying home and, financially, making that swap. Because that’s almost $21,000 a year for five days a week, full time.”

With a big percentage of working parents earning annual salaries in the $30,000-to-$60,000 range, childcare can become a major household expense.

“All of a sudden that $40 a day is huge, maybe 40 percent of their gross income,” Ritter said. “Bankers will tell you they wouldn’t give you a mortgage that’s more than 40 percent of your income. It’s just not doable.”

But parents aren’t the only ones feeling a punch to the pocketbook.

“That’s a lot of money [for families]. The catch is, that doesn’t pay as much as it really costs to provide that service,” Ritter said.

Tuition can’t keep these agencies open. So many of Aspen’s childcare centers are organized as not-for-profit agencies to keep costs down and to bolster their bottom lines with grants and community fund-raisers.

“As a nonprofit, tuition alone does not cover [costs],” said Eva Pekkala, a board member at the Early Learning Center. “We’re supported by grants and donations and fund raising. Our annual Fourth of July fund-raiser has the potential to raise – the parents have to participate in raising – $20,000. We’re very fortunate that we can do this with one event as opposed to many events throughout the year.”

While parents might pay $40 for a day of care, it can cost the childcare provider $75-$80 in food, rent and employee wages, Ritter said.

“By far, the biggest cost is the labor,” she said. “Of course, teachers are not rolling in the big bucks. The state requires a minimum of one person with five infants, and the same for toddlers. With preschoolers, you can have as many as 10 preschoolers with one teacher. You can see right there that the cost is going to be twice as high in theory [to provide care] for those five infants or toddlers.”

Teachers make a mere $12 or so an hour, according to Ritter’s estimates, but it’s still enough to affect their employer’s bottom line. Nonprofit centers can spend 80-85 percent of their budget on payroll, Ritter said.

Sometimes, that forces centers to seek outside assistance.

Little Feet Day Care considered closing its doors in 1998 before it was saved by an emergency city loan. Little Feet is facing a $50,000 budget shortfall again this year, forcing the center to kick off a major fund-raising campaign this summer. First, however, the center will briefly shut down and reorganize as a nonprofit.

The Wildwood School has also suffered from budget problems. The school was offered a $45,000 line of credit by the city in 2000 after low enrollment and capital improvements caused a funding crisis. It has since regained its footing.

However, emergency loans aren’t always enough to save some childcare providers from extinction. In 2001, operating costs forced the closure of Kids Club, the Aspen Skiing Company’s care program. The Skico claimed total losses between $40,000 and $50,000 over four years of operation.

“We don’t have the type of business where you’re putting aside $10,000 a year. You’re typically striving to make your budget,” said Becky Helmus, director of the Wildwood School.

But Aspen has done its best to help any ailing agencies, Ritter said.

A helping hand

Aspen has always had a “progressive” approach to community childcare, Ritter said. To that end, Kids First was created about a decade ago as a resource for both parents and providers.

The organization is funded by a .45 percent sales tax collected in Aspen. This 10-year tax was approved by Pitkin County voters in 1990, and again in 1999, as a way to fund the following decade of affordable housing and childcare.

Sales tax proceeds make the work of both Kids First and local daycare centers possible. The tax even allowed the city to purchase the Yellow Brick School and renovate it as low-rent space for early-childhood-education providers.

“We are incredibly fortunate, much more so than most agencies that do that job, because we aren’t constantly having to look for money and compete for money with the childcare programs themselves,” Ritter said.

Kids First is known first and foremost as a “resource and referral agency” for both families and daycare centers. Kids First customers, both parents and centers, receive information on anything from financial-aid opportunities to teacher training.

Financial aid might be the most important resource that Kids First provides. Each May the organization sifts through dozens of applications from families hoping for help in paying for daily childcare.

“Eighty families at the end of 2002 were getting some kind of financial aid from us, and that actually represented almost 100 children,” Ritter said. “That’s probably 25 percent of the total people using licensed childcare in Pitkin County.”

Of the 3,000 families served by Pitkin County childcare programs in the last decade, 175 received tuition scholarships.

Aid is doled out on a sliding scale, Ritter said, depending on each particular family’s income. Some families get as little as $5 a day to supplement their child’s care, and others receive as much as $28 per day. In 2001, over $95,000 was handed out in financial aid.

“People who apply to us are expected to pay a percentage based on their income. It varies from 10, up to 16 percent,” she said.

Daycare centers sometimes provide scholarships of their own when the city’s financial aid isn’t enough. The Wildwood School, for example, uses a portion of its tuition revenue to help pay the entrance fees of families in need.

“We’ve always strived to offer some of our own partial scholarships,” Helmus said. “We’ve always felt it was important for each of the schools to have a cross section of students. No one wants to be known as the `rich kids’ school.”

Grants are also given directly to the childcare centers. The money is used to address quality, Ritter said, largely going toward professional development, employee bonuses and other benefits. The theory, Ritter said, is that taking care of teachers will improve the quality of care.

“It’s just something we felt we had to attack a bit more aggressively,” Ritter said.

The teacher turnover rate for Aspen’s daycare centers is alarmingly high – somewhere around 54 percent annually, Ritter said. Kids First tried to pick up the slack for employees, offering bonuses for those who seek additional training and raises for those who stick with their individual schools.

“Every six months they can receive a bonus from the city on scale with their education, and the payout is anywhere from $50 up to $1,500,” Ritter said. “People in childcare don’t get much for benefits, and health insurance being paid is a variable. … We needed to do something to improve the quality for teachers and increase their skills.”

Over $23,000 was budgeted this year to help 75 teachers in Pitkin County. Benefits are greatly appreciated, especially in a career with a high burnout factor.

“The salary supplement and the wellness benefit is such a shot in the arm for a teacher to feel like `I am valued,'” Helmus said.

These grants also benefit daycare customers. Another large share of the money goes to support centers with infant and toddler operations, which need extra staff and supplies to thrive.

“We have a lot of support from the city. Kids First has been essential – they’ve provided a lot of services, just as guidance, along with mediators hooking us up and giving us an idea of where to go,” said Christina Holloway, director of the nearly two-year-old daycare center, Roaring Fork Kids.

As much as Kids First tries to do for local childcare providers, it’s not always enough, Ritter admits. However, the organization has already launched a new campaign that it hopes will bring community attention to the problem.

Early-education initiatives

Kids First has declared May the Month of the Young Child – and they’re going to make sure that Aspen is aware of the proclamation.

Kids First recently kicked off a month of activities centered around Aspen’s youngest citizens – capped off with a children’s parade through the center of town on May 20. It’s all a part of the Kids First quest to improve communication with the community, Ritter said.

A committee organized by Kids First is helping out. The group has already created a brochure outlining the importance of early-childhood education – the basis of any childcare center – for parents and other stakeholders.

The pamphlet clearly outlines Kids First’s worries for the future.

“Childcare faces a dilemma,” the introduction reads. “Quality is not as great as it could be, costs are more than what many parents are able to pay, and compensation for teachers is inadequate for the important work that they do. We know how to improve quality, but resources – most early-childhood programs operate on very limited budgets – severely restrict our ability to act and implement.”

Though Kids First wants the public to know it is there to help, the organization also wants citizens to understand the obstacles, Ritter said.

The brochure has already made its way into human-resource packets provided by a variety of local employers. Since Aspen isn’t big enough to attract large companies with childcare benefits – Skico, the city’s biggest employer, couldn’t even afford its own daycare program – it can at least help its employees look elsewhere.

“I think the other piece of the puzzle that we have talked about for a long time is that employers and business people in town need to be part of that equation,” Ritter said. “I think employers are hesitant because they don’t know how much it’s going to cost, and they don’t know how to make it equitable with those employees that don’t need childcare.”

Early education has become such a hot topic that the Aspen Valley Community Foundation, one of the city’s largest charitable organizations, has taken up the cause.

The AVCF has already begun its Early Childhood Education Initiative, which aims to raise $250,000 a year for educational projects between Aspen and Parachute over the next five years. The foundation had previously promised nearly $40,000 a year in grants to local nonprofit childcare centers, but foundation officials soon saw that the issue needed even more time and attention, Ritter said.

“They identify an issue, then focus their fund-raising efforts on that issue,” she said of the AVCF. “They really saw early-childhood education as a field that was seriously underfunded and in need of help.”

The foundation will employ one full-time and one part-time person to enhance child-related resources between Aspen and Parachute, Ritter said. Eagle and Garfield Counties usually combine to employ just one part-timer to do the work Kids First does for Aspen alone, Ritter said.

The AVCF initiative has the potential to improve communication between these smaller agencies, help them combine their efforts and improve the quality of care throughout the valley.

“The difficulty with early education and childcare is that there isn’t a funded system like public school, or like higher ed, or like health care, or almost everything else. You just have lots of little agencies doing their thing and providing the care,” Ritter said.

Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com


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