Council candidates candid about child-care challenges in Aspen |

Council candidates candid about child-care challenges in Aspen

The Yellow Brick building in Aspen's West End has been home to child care facilities for decades.
File photo

Editor’s note: This is part of a series about mayoral and City Council candidates’ views on the top issues Aspen faces today.

In a valley of many transplants, meeting someone who grew up in Aspen is like meeting a unicorn. Raising those unicorns in Aspen, however, can be cost-prohibitive for many families as the cost of child care rises in an already pricey hometown. 

To mitigate those costs, the city of Aspen founded the citizen advisory board Kids First in 1990. It is a taxpayer-funded, child-care program that helps connect families with child-care options and works to supply financial aid and grants to parents and providers.

The city and Kids First made major decisions relating to child care in Aspen in the past few years and will face more in the immediate future.

In the summer of 2021, Kids First mandated that the longtime providers in the Yellow Brick must move from offering child-care services four days a week to five. After months of back and forth over the business viability and community benefit, two longtime providers decided to close. The city did not have immediate replacements after no providers responded to a request for proposals, which led to a disruption in child-care services for families. 

But in December 2022, the city approved providers Ajax Cubs to operate out of the Yellow Brick and Little Steps College to open at Aspen Colorado Mountain College. Both receive support from Kids First. 

Ajax Cubs serves infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged kids. And Little Steps College accepts children aged eight weeks to eighteen months. 

As the city moves forward on developing the next phase of the city-owned, affordable-housing development Burlingame Ranch, across from Buttermilk ski area, council members will determine the specifications of an early childhood education (ECE) center on site.

Tracy Sutton, a mayoral candidate challenging incumbent Torre, thinks that the Burlingame ECE will cost too much, and that the city should prioritize providing more affordable-housing units on the development site.

“How do you choose between children and housing? I think there’s got to be a situation where you could do both,” she said. “And that would be something that I would look into.”

At a December work session, city staff estimated that the low-end cost for the Burlingame ECE would hit $13,208,924, plus millions more in site work and escalation costs. 

“I would be looking for … what we need to do to defray those costs,” Sutton said. “We’ve also got to make sure that we have good teachers.”

Teacher and staff retention has posed a huge problem for child-care providers in the valley and the state, as low wages and high cost of living clash. 

Bill Guth, a first-time City Council candidate, also said the price tag at the Burlingame ECE seemed steep to him. He would prioritize finding a provider for the space before moving much further along. 

“I would like to really understand who’s going to operate the facility to make sure that when you know, we can get this thing up and running on day one,” he said. “Maybe even more critically, make sure that their knowledge of the business and the operation can be factored into design because changing the physical facility later to suit their needs is so much more expensive than getting it right the first time.”

At a December City Council work session regarding the Burlingame ECE, Mayor Torre said, “If there’s 18,000 square feet to work with here and we were going to have to go to the master HOA, I would want to utilize more of that for housing and a smaller footprint for the ECE.”

He said he stands by that statement and is waiting to hear more from city staff about the specific costs and requirements from the Burlingame HOA before making a decision on details for the ECE and housing on the site.

Incumbent council member Skippy Mesirow also indicated a desire to hear more from the HOA before directing city staff on the ECE. He supported the continued progress toward a large child-care facility, stressing that supporting affordable housing goes hand-in-hand with supporting child care in the city. 

Second-time City Council candidate Sam Rose is supportive of the Burlingame ECE but also stressed the importance of considering affordable housing for potential staff at the center.

“It’s just about trying to find more opportunities for working with Kids First, who has a really wonderful mindset and attitude about how to fix these problems, because the money is there for financial aid for parents that need help affording childcare, but the child care is not there for them to get in the first place,” he said. “And that’s, that’s really the underlying issue. And that’s why helping to solve the affordable housing crisis will help solve the child-care crisis.”

Some Aspenites have criticized the City Council for the decision to require the Yellow Brick providers to offer five days of child care instead of just four. Incumbents Torre and Mesirow acknowledged that the situation did not play out as they had hoped.

“I don’t know what to say; it was unfortunate for sure to lose Ms. Kadi at the Yellow Brick. The more recent actions of City Council and getting some stabilizing funding to our child-care providers and educators are really stabilizing for our child care,” Torre said.

He also said that the city made sure to give providers time — two years — to adjust and plan for the change, and that the goal was to expand access to child care. A goal that was met with the new tenant at Yellow Brick, Ajax Cubs.

“One of our greatest child-care assets is the physical building of the Yellow Brick, and we were under utilizing that asset by 25%. Four days instead of five, right? So we can increase capacity by 25%,” said incumbent Mesirow, who was also on the City Council in 2021. “By filling that day, and that seemed like a logical, rational thing to do. But somewhere in the game of telephone, we lost touch with the people on the ground, and this is my observation, not others would agree, in such a way that didn’t work well.”

He added that the Yellow Brick decision was a systems failure but also a learning opportunity. 

Rose asserted that while the situation did not play out well, the end result was beneficial for families.

“The city has done a decent job. As far as what happened at the Yellow Brick, that ended up poorly on all sides. But in the end, I believe it will work out for the best of this community,” he said. “The only real criticism of that is that if there’s going to be a changeover in providers, it needs to be much more immediate, but that’s a very difficult thing to do. So that’s very idealistic.”

Guth said he would have approached the situation entirely differently.

“I would have done my best to pair (the original tenants) with someone who would like to operate the other three days a week,” he said. “And that sort of accomplishes a lot of things simultaneously. One, you don’t have to build anything new. You’re utilizing an existing resource. Two, you’re not putting somebody out that has given so much to this community over the years. And three, you’re adding all this availability, including on Saturday and Sunday.”

Sutton said she would have liked to see more community input ahead of child-care decisions.

Voters can check their registration and address through the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. 

In-person early voting runs Feb. 21-March 6 at the City Clerk’s Office in City Hall. The polls will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Election Day is Tuesday, March 7. The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.