Flathead Valley Family

Expanding Childcare Access

Since the Child Care Initiative launched three years ago, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce officials have helped multiple providers expand services while focus attention to career recruitment

By Maggie Dresser
Children make crafts at Growing Roots Early Learning Center in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the pandemic closed childcare facilities in the Flathead Valley and nationwide four years ago, providers struggled to reopen in the aftermath amid health concerns, a loss of tuition money and a severe labor force shortage.

As parents returned to work, many couldn’t find any providers to care for their kids, and the few options that did exist were increasingly expensive, with costs hovering around $1,000 per month. This forced some parents to leave the workforce to care for their kids at home, many of whom had no other option. 

While tuition costs are unaffordable for many families, childcare providers say those costs are reflective of the high price of running a facility and paying employees competitive wages. 

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI), an estimated 6% of the state’s labor force relies on childcare arrangements to remain in the labor force, while a state survey reveals that 57% of businesses in Montana indicated a shortage of affordable childcare. In the same survey, 40% of business owners said the shortage was impacting their ability to recruit or retain qualified workers and 30% said inadequate childcare prevented the company from growing.

After hearing the challenges surrounding childcare, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Lorraine Clarno spearheaded a childcare study in 2021, coordinated a steering committee to brainstorm ways to expand childcare accessibility and launched the Child Care Initiative. 

Chamber officials collaborated with local childcare providers, business owners, schools, nonprofits and Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) and formed the Child Care Task Force to come up with solutions like scholarships, home-based childcare options, outreach and advocacy and creating a partnership to open new facilities.

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

“It makes it tenuous when people are spending more for childcare than they do for university,” Clarno said in the months after the initiative launched. “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.”

Since the initiative launched more than three years ago, the action team has advocated for changes in regulations, reviewed licensing standards, workforce recruitment and have helped existing providers expand capacity. 

Multiple providers have expanded childcare since partners began working together, including The Birds Nest, which is operated by Corrine Kuntz.

As a member of the chamber’s steering committee, Kuntz has worked to expand her childcare center and she was awarded $1 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build a second facility with a capacity for 90 children. The new space is expected to open this year. 

Immanuel Living, a life plan community in Kalispell, has also expanded its childcare for employees and launched the Growing Roots Early Learning Center in 2022. 

The center utilized $800,000 in ARPA and state funds to accommodate 75 kids in Kalispell and 20 children in Somers.

School District 5 has increased childcare options for its employees in two centers within Glacier and Flathead high schools to care for 45 kids. 

Additionally, chamber officials have focused working with local schools and FVCC to recruit students to the childcare field to address the workforce shortage. 

Clarno said the members of the initiative are working with the Montana Chamber of Commerce and legislators to potentially secure a childcare tax credit for businesses. 

With current childcare worker wages averaging at $12.20 per hour, Clarno said tax credits could help improve wages and bring more staff into the field. 

“Workforce continues to be the number one struggle,” Clarno said.

For more information about the Child Care Initiative, visit kalispellchamber.com/programs/flathead-child-care-initiative