As the Flathead Valley’s childcare crisis persists into the summer, local leaders and care providers are working to expand services and increase options for families. In cooperation with churches, school districts and educators across the Valley, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce has identified the potential for 500 new spots in childcare centers that could open in the next year. While chamber President and CEO Lorraine Clarno says her team has “our work cut out for us in the next six to 12 months,” the chamber’s efforts signal a major development in ending the childcare desert which has long impacted the Valley’s residents.
Gabe Mariman, co-owner of Bias Brewing and member of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce’s Child Care Task Force, said the chamber has identified a number of spaces in churches, schools and mixed-use developments where childcare facilities could be opened in the near future. The task force, which first convened in fall 2021, has outlined four key ways to bring additional care options to the Flathead: advocacy and outreach work, early childhood education scholarships, promoting home-based childcare options and identifying space for lease for childcare centers. Mariman is the director of the subcommittee to identify space for lease, working to find available properties across the Flathead and partner with current and prospective childcare providers to open new centers.
“Affordable housing and affordable childcare are the two biggest issues that I feel we face today,” he said. “We’re meeting every other week and we’re identifying spaces.”
New and expanded programs are currently anticipated to open in partnership with Light Of Life Childcare in Evergreen and Immanuel Lutheran, The Birds Nest Early Learning Village, the Gateway Community Center and Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.
The Kalispell Public School District is also planning on opening two childcare facilities, each with 45 slots for children. While the centers will only be open to the children of teachers in the district, they will alleviate some of the lengthy waitlists at other locations in the area.
The struggle to find quality, affordable childcare is a familiar problem for parents across the Flathead. Ashley Jensen, mother of a 3-year-old and director of the Nursery Program at The Birds Nest, described the long and difficult process of finding a center to enroll her son in. An educator who has spent years in the field, Jensen was able to secure a spot for her son when she began working at The Birds Nest. She said that Corinne Kuntz, the center’s founder and owner, is “really good about getting her staff childcare.”
Many other families, however, have not been as lucky, a reality Jensen is keenly aware of as both a mother and an educator. “There is so little high-quality care for infants in the Valley,” she said. “It’s very hard, especially looking for high-quality, and I have my degree in this field so I looked for high-quality.”
“We’re considered a childcare desert for infant care in the Flathead Valley. For ages two through six, we’re not much better.” Kuntz told the Beacon. “The demand for infant care is outrageous right now.”
In cooperation with the chamber’s task force, Kuntz is planning to expand her childcare operation, adding an eight-classroom center that will house around 120 students during the school year. The Birds Nest currently operates out of four residential homes, where educators care for children ages zero through five. Kuntz has closed on the new property and is hopeful that the expanded center will be up and running by the end of 2023. While she experienced some difficulty in obtaining approval for the new outpost — as childcare centers can only be located in very specific zones in the city of Kalispell — she is optimistic that the rest of the process will go smoothly.
The substandard state of childcare in the Flathead is no new phenomenon. In a pre-pandemic, 2020 study conducted by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, 40% of businesses reported experiencing difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified workers due to childcare issues.
The onset of COVID-19 only exacerbated such problems. In March 2021, 20,000 Montana parents reported being unable to return fully to work due to a lack of available childcare. Many childcare centers were forced to close their doors in the wake of pandemic-induced lockdowns, leaving them without months of tuition dollars. Pandemic safety measures also upped costs for providers, who already operate on tight margins. Additionally, numerous childcare centers lost workers who never returned to the industry. Jobs in childcare are traditionally labor-intensive and low paying, a combination which has left many vacancies as Americans have sought out more flexible and lucrative job opportunities en masse over the past two years.
“We constantly get calls from people who have been providers for like 20 years who say, ‘We just can’t keep staff,’” Jennifer Sevier, Outreach and Communications Specialist at The Nurturing Center, told the Beacon. The Nurturing Center is a nonprofit in Kalispell that works to connect families with childcare providers in the Flathead. Sevier says there are now fewer and fewer people going into the field and that training those who do enter is a long and expensive process.
Smith Memorial Daycare Director Tammy Braseth says that applicants looking to work at her center have dropped considerably since the start of the pandemic, from experienced teachers to high school-aged aides. Many of Braseth’s recent interviewees expressed requests for pandemic-era job flexibility, inquiring about remote work options and modified hours. Unfortunately, Braseth says, the field is not one where such accommodations can be made, a reality she believes has hindered industry’s ability to attract new workers.
“There’s no flexibility. I’m working nine hours if I have to,” she said. “The burnout rate lately is two to three years.”
At The Birds Nest, Kuntz has navigated the labor crisis by raising pay for her workers, a strategy that has helped her draw in talent. “I’ve been able to attract and retain staff by offering higher wages than what most are able to. A lot of the grant funds that have come towards childcare have allowed me to do that,” she said.
Last spring, Montana received more than $110 million in one-time pandemic relief funding through the American Rescue Plan Act’s (ARPA) childcare stabilization grants. The federal government tasked the state of Montana with distributing such funds to qualified childcare providers, who could spend the relief money on “key operating expenses, including wages and benefits, rent and utilities, cleaning and sanitization supplies and services, and many other goods and services necessary to maintain or resume child care services,” a memorandum from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stated. Kuntz was able to increase wages at The Birds Nest through such programs.
Despite an explicit line in the HHS memorandum asserting that the ARPA stabilization grant funding “is meant to supplement, not supplant, other federal, state, and local public funds expended to provide childcare services,” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed a bill last spring that would have created additional state level measures to address the crisis. The vetoed legislation, House Bill 624, would have created a business task force to examine the childcare shortage across the state. Gianforte cited the federal funding in his vetoing of the state bill, writing, “Montana has never had more resources available to increase access to and invest in child care.”
The picture painted by providers in the Flathead diverges from the Governor’s assessment, however. While a lifeline for The Birds Nest, the ARPA grant funding was not a cure-all. Offering higher wages, though necessary in attracting and retaining educators, forced Kuntz to make cuts in other areas. She shortened the center’s hours by 30 minutes per day, moving pickup time from 5:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., a choice that saved her about $20,000 per year. She says that parents remained supportive despite the shortened hours, happy to still have a high-quality place to bring their children.
However, as labor issues remain a major obstacle to care at other centers, many parents have been forced to stay out of the workforce or bring their children to unlicensed, unregulated drop-in facilities. While drop-in daycares can offer affordable and quick solutions for parents, a 2022 report by the chamber expressed concerns about such programs’ “quality and safety.” Kuntz warns that drop-in daycares can leave up to 50 children alone with one employee.
“We cannot have our employees throughout the Valley looking for childcare on Facebook marketplace,” Clarno said, alluding to other last ditch efforts taken up by parents.
Sevier and The Nurturing Center want parents to be aware of the many options that are available for assistance.
Through The Nurturing Center, parents in the Flathead are able to participate in the Best Beginnings Child Care Scholarship, a statewide program that grants low-income families considerable financial aid to pay for early childhood education. Under Best Beginnings, parents are required to contribute minimal copay, which is determined based on a sliding income scale.
Americans are also still eligible for the ARPA Child Tax Credit, which gives families a tax refund of $3,600 for each child under the age of 6 and $3,000 for each child between 6 and 17. The Child Tax Credit is available to households making less than $150,000 per year as a couple or $112,500 as a single parent.
While federal programs infused the childcare market with needed capital, helping providers like Kuntz remain open and attract new staff, their limited nature has left many advocates concerned about the future. Even tuition assistance programs like Best Beginnings, while critical for lowering barriers to access, do not address the physical shortage of centers that continues to impact the Flathead. The chamber’s Childcare Task Force and its partners hope to begin remedying this shortage to help get more parents back to work and children into safe and regulated centers.
In addition to the chamber’s efforts, many early childhood advocates urge Flathead residents to consider starting their own licensed centers through the state’s Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) program.
“The best thing would be for people to start opening childcares,” Sevier said, when asked about the path forward. “It’s pretty easy. You can do it in your own home if you have the space.”
Through the FFN program, individuals who have typically provided informal childcare for family members and friends can become licensed providers. FFN caregivers are annually inspected by the state and parents can use Best Beginnings funds to pay for FFN care. Many in the childcare industry, like Sevier, see this program as one of the easiest ways to address the shortage of options.
Jensen says the solution lies in having more available funding “on a governmental level.” She also emphasizes the need for legislators to take the work of childcare providers seriously. She urges people to see her line of work not just “as daycare or babysitting, but early childhood education.”
While Clarno is aware that the Chamber of Commerce cannot solve the problem alone, she is proud of the work the Child Care Task Force has accomplished so far. “It has really prompted some fantastic outcomes,” she said.
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