On Saturday, the directors of both Aspen Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen each sent out email notifications to the families their respective organizations serve alerting them of the business’ decisions to permanently close.
When accounting for both organizations’ closures, the total number of potentially lost child care spaces per week is 256.
Neither Aspen Mountain Tots Director Dawn Ryans nor Playgroup Aspen Director Kadi Kuhlenberg want to be closing their businesses, which they’ve operated out of the Yellow Brick Building — owned by the city of Aspen — for decades.
The issue, both say, comes down to new lease terms brought by the city that would take effect in September 2023 mandating each organization offer child care services eight hours per day that must include between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., five days per week. Currently, each organization operates four days a week.
Both Ryans and Kuhlenberg say that adding a fifth day a week of services will require them to hire additional staffing, the cost of which will not be fully offset by would-be new enrollments. The option, then, is either to increase the cost of services to families in an industry already crunched for affordable child care options, or work more hours for less pay and expect the same from their staff, thus risking burn-out and turnover, they’ve each said.
Ryans remembers what that was like, because she did it in 2017.
“I was burning out in 2017 and there was no one to pick up the pieces, and I carried on,” she said, adding that during that time she was regularly working between 60 and 70 hours a week. “And I know what my limits are. I can’t get to that place again.” Plus, she said, because her establishment offers services for nine and a half hours a day, four days a week, switching to five days a week at eight hours a day would only increase the actual hours of service by two. “It’s not worth it for one extra day and two extra hours.”
For Kuhlenberg’s part, Playgroup is open Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. She maintains that going out of business is the most prudent, albeit “heartbreaking” decision given the circumstances. Despite having asked Kids First — the child care resource center through the city of Aspen that is funded through a dedicated sales tax — leadership since 2015 for a lease that extends beyond one-year installments, it’s never been entertained or granted, she said, adding she has plenty of documentation of such requests. Rather, Kids First committed to offering the draft of the one-year lease renewals each year in May. But on June 23, still without having seen a draft of a new lease, Kuhlenberg and Ryans received notification of the city’s intention to provide the lease on July 7 and that a meeting was set for the next day, on July 8.
Kuhlenberg sent an email outlining her concerns, and in response on July 2, Kids First Director Shirley Ritter sent her an email with a draft lease, which was the first time Kuhlenberg was made aware of the new operational requirements.
Since then, she says conversations with the Kids First Advisory Board, city staff and elected officials have gone nowhere — frequently unanswered.
“This line that they’ve tried to work with us is not true at all,” she said, noting that she and Ryans were promised as many meetings as they wanted to “feel comfortable” in negotiating the final leases that never materialized. “Had even one of them, one single person, reached out to one of us, we probably wouldn’t be here doing this, but not one of them did,” she said. “There’s been no movement, no engagement.”
Ryans echoed that sentiment.
“It’s just unfortunate that it’s gotten this far,” she said. “When we had this conversation in July, I said if you force this new lease, you’ll be forcing me out.”
Ritter was hesitant to speak too much on the matter Sunday — not because she didn’t want to talk about it, but because she hopes to talk about it with stakeholders today, hopefully to find a “creative solution.”
“I have to be really honest with you: I got that email Saturday morning,” Ritter said. “Because we have such a desperate need for child care capacity, we are at that point in time — which was two years that we gave them notice [the new lease requirements take effect 2023] — we are asking people to be open five days a week. And both of those programs right now are only open to families four days a week.
I honestly don’t want to get into it too much at this point in time. I would like to sort of regroup on Monday morning and talk to those folks, see who they’ve talked to … because I’m sure there can be a workable solution,” she continued. “I know that everybody involved wants to do the best job that they can, and people feel differently about how that looks for them.”
From Ritter’s perspective, the change to five days per week in a city building instead of four comes from her staff’s day-to-day experiences of fielding phone calls from community members desperately seeking child care options — only to be told there aren’t any.
“We’re very concerned about calls we get from parents and we don’t have spaces for them,” she said.
Aspen City Manager Sara Ott on Sunday referred to the Kids First Advisory Board’s statement responding to the matter, adding via email, “These for-profit operators accept a tax-payer subsidy of specialized services and reduced rents for the use of the building. It’s clearly a reasonable position of the Kids First Board to place basic availability requirements receiving that subsidy. We look forward to having new operators that understand and can meet our community need for childcare at least five days a week.
Ryans pointed out Sunday that neither she nor Kuhlenberg receive any monetary subsidies from the city, just the below-market-rate rent in the Yellow Brick Building.
While no immediate tenant is waiting in the wings to take over the classroom spaces currently leased by Aspen Mountain Tots and Playgroup Aspen in order to fill the void of those organizations’ closures — much less offer five-days-a-week child care — the Kids First Advisory Board expressed confidence that one would emerge in its statement.
“Kids First is committed to immediately begin the search for a new operator who can take over the existing five classrooms in the Yellow Brick Building when it is vacated. The new child care provider will offer five-day-per-week care for children, resulting in more spaces for our Valley’s children,” the statement says. “There is a total of 14 classrooms in the building.”