Future of child care at Aspen facility being negotiated out | AspenTimes.com

Future of child care at Aspen facility being negotiated out

City, child care providers and Kids First board members at the table trying to find middle ground

City of Aspen officials and child care providers at the Yellow Brick are in negotiations aimed at having long-standing businesses remain in the city-owned facility.

There have been multiple meetings and email communications among city staff, Kids First Advisory Board members and the owners of Playgroup Aspen and Aspen Mountain Tots in recent weeks.

That communication follows an announcement made last month proposing changes to the providers’ leases will prevent them from continuing to provide child care.

And in a Jan. 7 Kids First Advisory Board meeting, it appeared that public comments made by more than a dozen parents asking for the city to reconsider the lease changes requiring Playgroup Aspen and Aspen Mountain Tots to operate five days a week instead of the current four may have had some influence on decision makers.

“I don’t want to speak on behalf of the entire board. … I think the key for me is listening, seeing what we can do, but also getting everybody involved so that we can have that community discussion, we can have a potential process moving forward,” Kids First Advisory Board co-chair Stefan Reveal said. “I will ask the entire Kids First board to push as quickly as possible and I know that this is on the minds of a lot of community members.”

The Kids First Advisory Board, which makes policy decisions on behalf of the city’s sales-tax based child care program, decided this past July to require Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen to operate five days a week to fully utilize the Yellow Brick facility and to increase capacity in child care offerings.

The new leases would not take effect until September 2023, giving the providers a more than two-year advance notice.

The Dec. 18 announcement by Kadi Kuhlenberg, owner and director of Playgroup Aspen, that she will cease operations in June citing that the new lease terms were unreasonable and not financially viable for her business, has caused some panic among parents.

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

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.

“For the 100 families that are going to be left in the lurch, I see basically the outcomes for those families as a handful of families will luck out and get a spot for their kids and it will be random and it certainly won’t be half or even a third of families,” said parent Victoria Stevenson during the Jan. 7 meeting. “Another group of parents will basically hire private tutors and form pods, … and a third group will have no options other than to potentially have to stay home and leave what they are currently doing professionally.”

Aspen City Council has made increasing child care capacity a priority in its work plan this year with the acknowledgment that not having affordable options for parents affects the local workforce and can be detrimental to the local economy.

The Kids First Advisory Board made its decision based on that direction.

“The board is dedicated to serving as many families as possible by employing efficient and wise use of physical and financial resources,” Reveal said during the board meeting. “No provider was asked to leave but rather close the gap in service days. … Five days a week of care in Yellow Brick subsidized rental space equates to serving families up to 240 days versus 180 days per year.”

Assistant City Manager Diane Foster confirmed last week that the municipal government is willing to amend the proposed leases to include a certain number of days a year when there are breaks in child care classes and making them longer than one-year terms but it is not budging on the five-day-a-week requirement.

Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First, said a final decision will have to be made sooner than later because a request for proposals to find a new provider is the next step if Playgroup Aspen ceases to operate at the Yellow Brick in June.

Ritter said she believes there are potential providers in the valley who would be interested, and some have expressed interest.

“I’m at least intrigued that people are interested,” Ritter said.

Kuhlenberg, who was scheduled to meet with Foster and Reveal last week but had to cancel due to staff shortage resulting from COVID-19, said she typically starts the enrollment process for families in February.

The Kids First Advisory Board is scheduled to meet Feb. 4 but may gather prior to that, Ritter said.

Kuhlenberg asked the board on Jan. 7 to commit to a timeline on decisions related to the lease but did not get a specific answer.

“Time is really of the essence for a number of reasons for both me and for all of my families who are very stressed and scrambled,” she said.

Reveal said during the meeting he hopes a solution can be reached.

“The key point for me is we do want to have Kadi and Dawn continue, they have provided excellent programs,” he said. “It pains me to see them both talk about leaving …

“We are willing to flex and we hope that there can continue to be a good productive discussion on how we can get to a spot where they can continue.”