Is there someone to watch the kids?

Childcare coalition launches online survey to assess local needs
By 
Deb Hill
News-Argus Managing Editor
Friday, January 8, 2021
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Ashley Fox (center), owner and director of The Fox Den Childcare, LLC, takes an outing with some of the center’s preschool students. Childcare options are limited in Central Montana, and Fox is part of a coalition undertaking a survey to measure just how large the problem is.
Photo courtesy of Ashley Fox

Everyone talks about the problem; now there’s a group that wants to do something about it: the struggle working parents face to find childcare in Central Montana.
“We hear a lot about the lack of adequate childcare in this area,” said Carly Wheatley, development director with Snowy Mountain Development Corporation, the area’s economic development organization.
“There is a connection between lack of childcare and the economy,” Wheatley said. “We’ve heard from businesses that want to expand but a major hurdle to their ability to do it is there is no child care for their new employees. If parents can’t find good childcare, they can’t work, or maybe it affects the hours they can work when one of them needs to be home with the kids. Some people leave the workforce entirely until their kids are school age due to lack of child care.”
Childcare options in the area have been limited for quite some time. Prior stories in the News-Argus have reported on waiting lists, difficulty meeting state requirements for childcare facilities and the generally low salary base for childcare providers.

“People want to be here in Central Montana – they want to stay here if they grew up here, or they want to move here – but the lack of options for childcare is right up there with housing as a hurdle,” Wheatley said. “COVID just expanded the issue when kids had to stay home for quarantine, or when schools are closed to in-person learning.”
That’s why Wheatley and the Childcare Coalition are taking the first step in planning for increasing Central Montana’s childcare options. The group is asking local residents to fill out a survey aimed at determining the current and future demand for childcare programs. The survey is available online at www.surveymonkey.com/r/lewistownchildcare.
“From this information, we hope to develop business models for those looking to expand or start new childcare businesses,” Wheatley said. “The survey is directed toward current and near-term needs, from parents and people who anticipate using childcare in the next five years.”
Wheatley said the information will help the Coalition know more precisely what the local needs are – is it more space, different hours, drop-in care or something else.
“We are looking at what the needs are versus what the market is,” Wheatley said. “We have to realize the local need is greater than the ability of our existing childcare facilities to meet it.”

Meeting childcare needs is challenging
“As a top employer for the area, at CMMC we’ve seen the struggles our staff have gone through to find housing, to find childcare. I know for a fact we had people who were good candidates for management positions who decided not to come here because they couldn’t find childcare,” said Ann Tuss, Central Montana Medical Center Foundation director.
Tuss serves on the Childcare Coalition, and said the survey is a good first step to address the needs gap.
“This will document something we all know is a need, but now we will have numbers to put on it,” Tuss said. “Businesses are so affected by this. I hope we can all get in one room and talk about it; it would help everyone.”
As the owner and director of The Fox Den Childcare business, Ashley Fox, also a member of the coalition, knows first hand what some of the challenges are.
“Infant care [for children under the age of 2] is the greatest need,” Fox said. “Currently we have 10 names on a waiting list for infant care. Part of the reason is the state’s requirements are very strict for licensed childcare for infants. You need to have one provider for every four infants, which means more staff. There are facility requirements we would need to meet if we try to expand. For any room where children are, you must have either two full exits to the outside – doors, not windows – or you have to put in a sprinkler system that costs around $100,000 for each 1,000 square feet. When you look at what people can pay for childcare, it doesn’t add up.”
Fox said she hopes the survey will help the coalition to attract possible state or federal funding that can help expand area options.

Next steps
Wheatley with SMDC said she hopes the survey responses will provide information that can be used for future grants or other funding.
“You don’t realize how important child care is until you need it,” Wheatley said. “If you don’t have relatives who live here, you have to have enough providers, whether that’s in-home providers or external facilities. We have good quality childcare here, but we have to recognize the need is greater than what the existing programs can meet. The survey numbers will help us to evaluate different business models.”
After the survey is completed, Wheatley said the coalition will meet with some focus groups to look at specific issues related to expansion, best practices and grant opportunities. The goal is to complete a feasibility study by mid-May.

Childcare Survey open

Take the survey at
www.surveymonkey.com/r/lewistownchildcare
The survey is open until Jan. 31.
Those who complete the online survey will be entered in a raffle to win an iPad.

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