Jobs Issue

The Imbalance of Childcare

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce is partnering with local childcare providers and businesses to create more accessibility in the Flathead Valley

By Maggie Dresser
Wynn, age 2, plays in the yard at The Birds Nest preschool in Kalispell on March 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When Corinne Kuntz opened her in-home childcare facility, The Birds Nest – Early Learning Village, in 2014, she was charging families $35 per day to cover her costs and teachers’ wages for her business.

But as operating costs have increased and since she raised her employee wages, which range from $15 to $19 an hour, Kuntz now charges $70 per day, doubling the tuition since she opened her childcare business eight years ago, which has 100 families on her waitlist.

To add to her business stress, a handful of Kuntz’s assistants quit in the last few years and no one applied to replace them.

“At that point, I had to increase my wages and offer a signing bonus,” Kuntz said. “In order to increase wages, payroll was taking 100% of tuition going in.”

Kuntz was able to make up for these costs with a variety of grants that were established when the pandemic hit and shut down childcare facilities. Now, she is slowly increasing tuition for incoming families to cover the future costs once the grant money runs out.

Kuntz is one of many childcare business owners bearing the burden of high operating costs, which officials at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce are working to solve.

Toddlers race across the yard at The Birds Nest preschool and childcare in Kalispell on March 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last year, chamber president and CEO Lorraine Clarno spearheaded a childcare study and coordinated a steering committee to brainstorm ways to expand childcare accessibility, which impacts families and prevents some parents from returning to work.

“It’s one of the top challenges businesses are hearing from their employees,” Clarno said. “They were finding folks were accepting jobs in the community and having to withdraw (from consideration).”

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, an estimated 6% of the state’s labor force relies on childcare to remain in the labor force.

Chamber officials collaborated with local childcare providers, business owners, schools, nonprofits and Flathead Valley Community College to come up with solutions like scholarships, home-based childcare options, outreach and advocacy and creating a partnership to open a new facility.

Between prohibitive costs and a lack of space, the study found that the number of childcare providers has steadily decreased, and there are half as many home-based providers as there was before the pandemic.

With tuition costs hovering around $1,000 per month at many childcare providers, Clarno says many families can’t afford it.

“It makes it tenuous when people are spending more for childcare than they do for university,” Clarno said. “It’s an economic conundrum. Even though wages have continued to rise, it’s costing families with infants $14,000 a year and there’s a two-year waiting list. The family planning has to be pretty intense.”

Toddlers play in the yard at The Birds Nest preschool in Kalispell on March 25, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At Discovery Developmental Center, Director Collette Box, who has worked in the industry since the early 1990s, loses $500 per child. She charges families $950 per month, but the cost of care is around $1,500. She’s making up her for losses with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, but she’s hoping to figure out a long-term solution once those funds run out.

“ARPA will help me for a few years,” Box said. “The purpose was to sustain childcare so business can get caught up.”

Box believes legislative action could help low-income families in the long term.

“That will be an uphill battle,” Box said. “But in two or three years, if we have some form of acknowledgement that families cannot afford $1,500 a month, our low-income families can get their childcare paid for.”

Kuntz has been working with Clarno to try and expand The Birds Nest and she’s hoping to find a commercial space, which would bring more childcare options to the Flathead Valley.

While Kuntz works with lenders and searches for a space, she’s been restructuring her business to cut costs, like closing early and offering parttime care for families, but she’s still relying heavily on grant funding to prevent losses.

“There’s a lot of concern about tuition,” Kuntz said. “I’m going to price out a lot of families in the valley, which hurts my heart a lot but at the same time, if I want to provide a quality program and I want to make sure my teachers are paid well, I have to charge this.”

“We’re trying to figure out that balance and having some options to make sure I can move forward with this because it’s so desperately needed,” Kuntz added. “There’s so many people who can’t go back to work.”