Inside the Local Child Care Crisis
Long-standing child care provider to close its doors due to political impasse with city of Aspen
Three classrooms in the Yellow Brick building in Aspen’s West End neighborhood have been filled with the sounds of preschool children playing, laughing and learning for three decades but come early June, they’ll be dark, quiet and void of any activity.
They’ve been occupied by Aspen Playgroup, a locally owned child care provider for 40-plus children. Playgroup will hold its final graduation on June 2 for kids who will attend kindergarten in the fall, followed by a community celebration to recognize all the children and their parents who have been through the program first started by Mary Wolfer — known affectionately as “Miss Mare” — in 1993.
That long tenure and tradition ends on Friday, June 3, when Wolfer’s niece, Kadi Kuhlenberg, who bought the business in 2016, closes the doors.
“This is all very emotional, I’ve been on the verge of a meltdown here for a while,” Kuhlenberg said while sitting outside the Yellow Brick the week before closing. “I’m in utter disbelief that I have seven more days with these kids and that part is really hard … knowing that I have a staff that loves it, the kids are so happy, so content.”
Politics at play
The decision to close is the result of a political impasse between Kuhlenberg and the city of Aspen, which owns the Yellow Brick building.
A citizen advisory board that oversees the city’s taxpayer-funded child care program, known as Kids First, decided last summer that Playgroup Aspen and another provider, Aspen Mountain Tots, must operate five days a week rather than the current four. The mandate is an effort to increase capacity in child care offerings.
The terms of their leases were changed in 2021 and were to take effect in September of 2023.
But after months of explaining to city officials that going to five days would not be financially feasible as more teachers would need to be hired, and it would create staff burnout and erode the quality of care, Kuhlenberg decided earlier this year to hang it up, citing unreasonable lease terms.
Dawn Ryan, owner and director of Aspen Mountain Tots, announced in March that she will close one of her classrooms that serves toddlers effective Sept. 1.
Ryan will still offer 60 preschool slots but will not be increasing capacity as the city envisioned. Aspen Mountain Tots has pre-enrolled the 2023 school year but will not enroll a new child from the community until 2024. She will then wean enrollment over the next four years when she plans to close her doors permanently.
“The last 11 months have been a sad and lonely place,” she said. “When Playgroup closes and moves on it will become even lonelier.”
Both Kuhlenberg and Ryan argued that going to five days a week does not increase capacity, and the Kids First Advisory Board and city officials continue to ignore that fact.
“This would have resulted in zero additional families cared for,” Kuhlenberg said. “Our monthly capacity averages were not changing.”
And as noted by Ryan in her March 4 letter to the Kids First Advisory Board, “(Aspen Mountain Tots) currently serves the required 30 toddler and 60 preschool slots per week. Adding another day will not increase capacity. It might lift a burden for one or two of our families, but it will not increase the capacity for the community.”
The Kids First Advisory Board and city officials don’t agree, said Assistant City Manager Diane Foster.
“I believe in a couple of years it will benefit the community to have increased capacity,” she said. “It’s a 20% increase in capacity and in a five-day week, having one day not empty in a facility that’s right in the middle of Aspen is the goal.”
For at least the summer and possibly the fall, the three classrooms occupied by Playgroup Aspen will sit empty as the city continues to look for a new provider.
No bidders, no workers
The city in March issued a request for proposals from licensed child care providers in the Roaring Fork Valley interested in operating the three classrooms at the Yellow Brick occupied by Playgroup Aspen.
No bids came in, which forced city officials to issue a new RFP and post it on BidNet, a national bidding platform for governments.
Proposal packages are due by June 9 and an announcement on a new provider is expected June 16, though no one will be occupying the space until at least the fall, Foster acknowledged.
“It might look bad for a while,” she said. “I thought we would have a provider before this and I was wrong so there may be going back to the drawing board on June 9 if we don’t get any responses.”
Nationally, there is a shortage in the early childhood education workforce with the average wage for a teacher at $20 an hour.
Add the lack of housing and the high cost of living in the Roaring Fork Valley and it’s virtually impossible to hire low-paid teachers here.
“Every day I wake up and wonder if I have to shut classrooms down,” said Leslie Bixel, executive director of the nonprofit Early Learning Center, a child care provider in the Yellow Brick that has almost 100 kids from ages 8 weeks old to 6 years old.
Three teachers recently resigned and Bixel has been desperately looking to hire more since November; 17 staff members have left since 2021.
She said if she was in Kuhlenberg and Ryan’s shoes, she would shut down also.
“Those two programs are run by owner-directors who are teachers and they can’t be working 50 and 60 hours a week and then be able to provide high-quality care,” Bixel said.
Aspen Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen accept rent subsidies from the city but no cash incentives, according to Kuhlenberg and Ryan.
They said they take issue with the city offering almost $77,000 in incentives for a new provider in the RFP.
Foster said those are start-up costs that wouldn’t be available otherwise to an existing business.
From parents’ lips
Beyond the differing viewpoints, bureaucracy and politics, there are dozens of children and their families who are being affected by the inability for the city and the current child care providers to find common ground.
Playgroup’s closure displaces over 40 children and their families that will have to readjust their lives and routines.
Chelsea Dillon, a mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, said it was stressful when she learned she’d have to find a new child care provider.
She landed her older child at Wildwood School, but said her children will miss their friends at Playgroup, along with their teachers who they have bonded with.
“It’s just crazy to us to get rid of two successful programs that our kids loved without anything being put in there,” Dillon said, adding she will keep her 2-year-old at home this summer. “We’re very excited but I think it’s how the city went about it. … They wanted to fix a crisis and they made a bigger crisis.”
Aspen resident Anna Zane, whose 4-year-old daughter attends Playgroup — as did all of her siblings and Zane herself under Miss Mare — said it’s an emotional move to put her youngest child at the Little Red School House in Snowmass, where she will now have to drive every day rather than riding her bike to the Yellow Brick.
“It’s a devastating blow to lose this asset for so many years due to a bureaucratic squabble,” she said. “It’s so insulting to really the entire community of Aspen and the short-sightedness of this is so infuriating and their vision is so grandiose that they know better.”
Child care providers within the Yellow Brick said they wished those on the Kids First board and in City Hall had understood the industry better before making such big decisions affecting their livelihoods and so many parents and kids’ lives.
“People who don’t know anything about early childhood education need to be more open” to ideas and suggestions, Bixel said. “I don’t know how they are going to dig themselves out of this, they’ve gone down such a dark path and what they’ve done is irreversible.”
She, along with Kuhlenberg and Ryan, as well as dozens of parents have spoken at Kids First Advisory board meetings since last July in an attempt to convince its members to reconsider their position.
“I think what has been most upsetting is that it didn’t have to happen, and for anyone who was operating in good faith and with an open mind, it became clear early on in the discussions that it didn’t have to happen,” said Playgroup parent Victoria Stevenson. “In my mind, the upside of adding a fifth day was about two additional spots per class, but the downside was shutting two long-standing businesses down and starting from scratch.”
Stevenson added: ”Kids First made it clear though, by the second conversation, that they weren’t really interested in the conversation we were trying to have and it wasn’t going to be a back and forth and they weren’t going to be answering those questions. I never got an answer on how many new spots they thought they were adding.”
Dillon said she applied to be on the Kids First Advisory Board and was interviewed by Aspen City Council but never heard back from anyone.
Samantha Daniels, co-director at Playgroup Aspen and a mother who has two children enrolled there, said she will be placing them at the Little Red School House.
Daniels said there was enough room at the Little Red School House that her kids’ friends in Playgroup also will attend there.
All three mothers said they’ll miss having that long-time local presence and reputation that only a provider of three decades can offer.
Kuhlenberg said she feels strongly about that as well.
“It just feels like we are being treated as entirely disposable,” she said. “They are not considering what this is doing to us individually, to our families, to these kids and they’ve ignored the personal aspect of this decision when the basis of this business and this industry is relationships and people and supporting families and that’s the failure.”
The decision by the Kids First Advisory Board to maximize the rooms at the Yellow Brick is following direction of City Council, which in 2021 made increasing child care capacity one of its priorities.
City officials recognize that without access to affordable child care, parents cannot contribute to the local workforce and economy.
But the fact that nearly all the kids in Playgroup Aspen have been placed, the capacity issue seems to a be red herring, according to Kuhlenberg.
The RFP for a new child care provider, which was amended to add a fourth classroom in anticipation of Ryan closing the toddler room, requires a year-round schedule, five days a week and a minimum of eight hours a day, as well as a plan for additional services for working families on Saturday, Sunday or holidays.
The city’s estimate — based on a recent update of the waitlists of Aspen-area providers — is that parents of over 400 children in the valley are unable to enroll in an early childhood education program.
In response, the city is planning to build an eight-classroom facility in the third phase of Burlingame Ranch, a municipal government-built subdivision of deed-restricted housing across from Buttermilk Mountain.
The facility would serve roughly 100 children ranging from infants to preschool and is estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million.
City Manager Sara Ott was in Washington D.C. last month lobbying U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) for $2 million in federal funding toward the Burlingame facility.
“We are optimistic since there is only one other (child care facility) request in the state,” Ott said.
Ott estimates with just under $6 million in funding from Kids First revenue, there is a $3.25 million gap, if she’s projecting on the lower end of the final price tag.
The city is also considering private partners, like area employers who might want to contribute toward their employees’ benefits.
The current schedule calls for construction drawings to be completed by the spring of 2023 and site preparation would begin in the fall of next year.
“We are working on a capital campaign and that very much includes partners,” Foster said.
The city also plans to set aside up to four affordable housing units adjacent to the facility for early childhood educators.
The city in January hired a Denver-based consultant, Kate Kalstein, for $35,000 to help it plan for the Burlingame facility, as well as assess capacity and build support for child care in the upper valley with potential partners.
She is expected to present a report to the Kids First Advisory Board at the end of June.
There are other child care facilities being planned in the midvalley as hundreds of more residential development are being built.
Some who work in the industry question why a regional approach isn’t being taken to assess how much brick and mortar is needed and how those facilities will be staffed.
CMC facility still in its infancy
The city has been trying to find a licensed childcare provider to run an infant childcare business with space for eight children at Colorado Mountain College’s Aspen campus for more than a year.
And while the city already has spent tens of thousands of dollars to build a room to accommodate such a business, officials have realized that it’s going to take more investment.
Earlier this year, City Council approved a $250,000 expenditure to contract with someone willing to run the infant care center, as well as pay for furniture, fixtures and equipment.
“Because it’s a single infant room, which is a harder business model, the city has allocated some funding that we can go above and beyond what we would normally do,” Foster said. “It’s a venture capital model in which we provide funding that we wouldn’t normally provide.”
A taxing proposition for the community
City voters in 1989 passed a 0.45% sales tax, of which 55% goes to the Kids First program and the remaining amount toward affordable housing.
The tax, which was renewed by voters in 2008 and runs through 2040, has generated $34.9 million since 1994, which is as far back as the city’s financial system tracks.
Generating just under $2 million a year, most of the revenue is spent on financial aid for families, tuition buydowns and other subsidies, as well as support for the program like quality improvement efforts and resource teachers.
Current providers in the Yellow Brick said more money should be invested into the retention and recruitment of early childhood educators.
“We are missing the entire next generation of providers,” Kuhlenberg said. “We don’t have them to step in and fill these programs because there hasn’t been the support to get there and the young providers that have watched it don’t want to step into it because of the stress and difficulty that we’ve faced and instead of being supported by our local support agency it’s been almost the opposite.”
Ryan said when she signed her lease in 2010 to operate Mountain Tots in the Yellow Brick it basically read, “care for children and pay your rent.”
“Now with multiple pages of the RFP reading like a novel, I am no longer able to meet the city’s needs,” she said. “Even people with the best intentions are influenced by their own desires.
“The city has good intentions influenced by their own ideas and they are entitled to that,” Ryan continued. “I just don’t have to be the one to carry that burden of their dream so I am getting out of their way, phasing out my program so that they can bring in their new providers that they are confident are waiting in the wings and together they can fulfill the next phase of that dream.”
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