Snowmass Town Council mulls child care needs, feasibility of solutions |

Snowmass Town Council mulls child care needs, feasibility of solutions

Local child care stakeholders add context to hard numbers at work session

The Little Red Schoolhouse on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Snowmass Sun)

There’s no question of the desire for more child care in Snowmass Village and the greater Roaring Fork Valley, Town Council agreed at a May 10 work session.

“Build it and they will come. There is the need,” Little Red Schoolhouse Director Robin Sinclair said of increasing capacity at the Snowmass child care facility during the meeting.

Just how great the need is — and what the town might be able to do about it — was the subject of a discussion on early childhood education with Sinclair, Kids First director Shirley Ritter and other child care stakeholders at Monday’s meeting.

Ritter and Sinclair put hard numbers into context: It’s about more than just how much space there is for the number of young children in the area.

A 2021 assessment of early childhood education options from the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments reported 823 children under the age of 5 in Pitkin County with a licensed capacity of 634 child care slots for those children. A quarter of families in the assessment reported inadequate care for children under 5.

According to Ritter, just a few dozen of those spaces are for infants, and some of the options aren’t year round or are located midvalley, making them less than ideal for parents who live and work full time in the upper valley. The need wildly outpaces the supply in that youngest age group: in 2019, there were 141 babies born in the county, Assistant Town Manager Travis Elliott told council during the work session.

The Little Red Schoolhouse, which is the sole year-round early childhood education provider in Snowmass Village, has room for about 30 children. School leaders have had their eyes on expanding facilities to bolster the school’s capacity to serve village residents, but some hurdles — including the COVID-19 pandemic — have caused delays, Sinclair said.

But a licensed capacity of 634 slots does not necessarily mean providers in the county can actually care for 634 children, Ritter said.

“We have a serious workforce shortage,” Ritter said. “We have had it for a while, and COVID made it worse. … You’ve got to be able to staff (a center) and you’ve got to staff it with folks who are qualified to care for young kids.”

Finances are a factor, too. The average annual wages across all industries in the county are $60,372, according to that early childhood education needs assessment, but in the child care sector, it’s just $32,740.

Finding qualified teachers is part of the challenge, Councilor Tom Goode pointed out: “It’s having a good quality teacher, not just a warm body there, that’s important.”

Also, the job can lead to burnout and high rates of turnover, Councilor Alyssa Shenk noted.

In order to pay teachers and child care providers more to meet the workforce shortage in an area notorious for its high cost of living, the cost of child care increases, too. It is already steep in Pitkin County at $18,500 per child per year for kids under the age of 5, Elliott said.

Outside funding could help alleviate some of that strain, Ritter suggested. In Aspen, a sales tax supports financial aid for families who live or work within Aspen’s urban growth boundary. Families whose members all live and work in Snowmass Village don’t benefit from that because of constraints on the sales tax, but it could be something for the town to consider implementing in Snowmass Village, Ritter suggested.

“More than just helping families be able to afford child care and go back to work, I can tell you that what I’m seeing is that it allows programs to think about charging a little closer to what it actually costs, to raising their rates so they can pay their teachers, knowing that the families that need financial aid will be able to get it,” Ritter said.

“I know how hard it is to even consider raising that tuition by a dollar a day because who’s going to drop out because they can’t afford it?”

As for the next steps the town might take, staff recommended conducting and paying for a full needs analysis from a third-party consultant. Further analysis could look beyond the extent of the need to the feasibility of proposed solutions to address it in the town, too.

“I just know what a valuable resource it is not having to run into Aspen to drop your kids off to come back to go to work,” Mayor Bill Madsen said. “That in and of itself is really important for Snowmass Village, so how we get there is I think what our next step is.”