Child care providers, city of Aspen not playing well in sandbox |

Child care providers, city of Aspen not playing well in sandbox

Taxpayer-funded and city-subsidized child care providers decide to close and argue new lease terms are untenable; almost 100 families left to figure out where to have their children cared for

Children with Aspen Mountain Tots play on the Yellow Brick child care playground in Aspen on a cold morning on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

City of Aspen officials are standing by a decision made by the advisory board that oversees the municipal government’s taxpayer-funded child care programs that providers operate five days a week in the Yellow Brick building.

The Kids First Advisory Board’s decision this past summer to change the leases for two child care providers — Playgroup Aspen and Aspen Mountain Tots — to require they operate five days a week instead of their current four has resulted in both announcing this past weekend to nearly 100 families they plan to close their operations.

The new leases would not take effect until September of 2023, but for Kadi Kuhlenberg, owner and director of Playgroup Aspen, she plans to hang it up in June.

“I decided that if I was going to be forced out for the 2023-24 school year as a result of unreasonable lease terms, then I would not make the effort to see the 2022-23 school year through because to do so would require me to deceive new families that I was enrolling into thinking that I would be operating for their child’s three-year tenure at Playgroup,” she wrote in her Dec. 18 announcement. “I would have to fully enroll to be financially viable through that time, but I wouldn’t expect families to stay with a program that would be closing within a year. The same concerns applied to my staff, who have been with me for years.”

Dawn Ryan, owner and director of Mountain Tots, said if she can’t find acceptable accommodations by January 2023, she will announce she is closing at the end of her lease in August of that year.

“I’m very loyal to my families,” she said Monday. “I don’t want to ditch them. They’ve been so good to me.”

She and Kuhlenberg said the new leases are untenable because going to five days a week will negatively affect the quality of their child care programs, create staff burnout and it’s not financially feasible as more teachers will be need to be hired.

Between Playgroup and Mountain Tots closing, the potential loss in an already desperate landscape for families in the Roaring Fork Valley to find affordable child care could be as many as 260 slots a week.

But city officials said this week they have no intention of eliminating those slots and are committed to finding providers who can operate five days a week.

“It is consistent with (Aspen City Council) direction to increase capacity,” Assistant City Manager Diane Foster said Tuesday. “I know child care folks are framing it like we are pushing them out, but no, we are asking them to do something different.”

The Kids First Advisory Board recognized this past July when it voted to change the lease terms that a city-subsidized resource was being utilized only 80% of the time.

Dawn Ryan, owner of Aspen Mountain Tots, watches her students play outside of the Yellow Brick in downtown Aspen on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Playgroup and Mountain Tots pay reduced rents compared with the free market, at roughly $11 a square foot.

Mountain Tots pays $1,725 a month, or $20,697 a year, for its two classrooms and office space, according to its lease with the city.

Playgroup pays $2,492 a month, or $29,902 a year, for its three classrooms and a bathroom, according to its lease terms.

The city also provides tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid for families to enroll their children in city-subsidized child care programs, along with other subsidies such as pro-rated amounts for utilities and free the use of common space at the Yellow Brick like the playground, kitchen, laundry room and gym, according to Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First.

She and Foster acknowledged the difficulty in finding child care providers due to the challenges in the industry to make an operation financially viable, particularly with low wages preschool teachers make and the shortage of workers and available housing in the valley.

But they said they believe it’s possible, given the subsidies the city offers at the Yellow Brick, located in Aspen’s West End neighborhood.

“I don’t take it lightly,” Ritter said. “We know it can be difficult to find providers but with this building, this location and highly subsidized rents, we think we can find someone.”

City officials also said they are open to continuing the dialogue with Kuhlenberg and Ryan, hoping to find a resolution.

Mayor Torre said he has been receiving a lot of feedback from parents on both sides of the issue, those who support the current operators, as well as those who need child care five days a week.

“I’m still at a point in this whole process that I am not making any judgments about where we are, who’s done what, and I find this to be just a situation of circumstance,” he said. “There’s no malfeasance going on, there’s no ill will going on here. Quite the contrary, I think there’s nothing but attempts to try to work this out mutually and try to work with each other, and hopefully that opportunity still exists.”

Kuhlenberg said she feels like she has been left out of conversations at the city level and the government has not been transparent, while city officials claim she and Ryan have known about the advisory board’s decision for six months and question why the announcement to close was made right before the Christmas holiday.

Kuhlenberg said Monday she and Ryan feel disrespected as they are trying hard to provide a community service.

“If this had been done in the light of day and in the open we wouldn’t be doing this publicly,” Kuhlenberg said. “I don’t feel like we had a choice.”

Ryan and Kuhlenberg said they have received positive feedback from parents who are ready to take the city to task.

“We are literally female and independently owned businesses and this is what the city is supposed to want,” Ryan said Monday. “What we have at Mountain Tots is so special, and it’s devastating.”

Ritter said it’s an unfortunate situation, but she is hearing from parents and City Council members that they want five days a week from providers, which will result in more spaces for children in the valley.

“Because there is such a high demand for child care in the valley, the Kids First Advisory Board believes that offering services each day of the work week would best meet the needs of parents and caregivers,” according to a statement by Kids First issued Monday. “We are dedicated to contributing to a community that prospers, families and children that thrive, and child care that succeeds. We are saddened by the decision of Playgroup Aspen and Aspen Tots to discontinue child care offerings in Aspen.”

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