Little Falls City Council debates child care partnership with school district | News


Little Falls will soon be home to a new child care center, but not before some lively debate on the details on how it will come about.

In March, the city learned its request for $1.5 million in grant funding from a federal appropriations bill had been approved. Since that time, City Administrator Jon Radermacher, Mayor Greg Zylka and other staff members have been working on what type of facility the city would like to build and how it can leverage the funding to get the most bang for its buck.

Monday, Radermacher presented a plan that includes a partnership with Little Falls Community Schools to build a new facility on the west side, near Lincoln Elementary. The school district would match the city’s $1.5 million for construction, and it would eventually own and operate the facility.

“In my mind, I’ve been part of the discussions, and I think this is an amazing opportunity for our community,” Zylka said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our west side to have that facility over there.”

The city is required to submit a project narrative and budget to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD) by the end of the year. Radermacher said they have been waiting to ensure the partnership with the school would work out before completing that step. He said, from everything he has learned about the funding, the project would be a valid use of the $1.5 million.

As part of that process, he asked the City Council to approve the low quotation of $5,100 from Landmark Environmental of Bloomington, to complete an environmental assessment on the preferred site. That is the school district-owned property on the southwest side of Lincoln Elementary. The child care facility would likely be attached to the Early Childhood Family Education Center.

Radermacher said the assessment will take about six weeks.

In addition to the $1.5 million in grant funding, the Council will also be asked to approve additional support of up to $200,000 for start-up operations. In August, the Council approved $100,000 in American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding for Big Adventures Child Care Center as it transitioned to new ownership. Without the grant from the city, keeping the center open would not have been financially feasible.

“We know in those transitions and early stages, it can be difficult and the financial numbers don’t line up,” Radermacher said. “That’s what we learned with Big Adventures in their transition. That’s what we’ve learned with many of the additional providers. I’ve seen proposals for new, start-up child care centers many times over the last few years. Every single one of them, I can tell you this, in the first year, second year, they have a really hard time making money. They actually don’t. They’re not profitable.”

He said that is the case, even with the school district.

“Instead of waiting until it’s after the fact, let’s at least be proactive and forthright to know that there may be additional money to help offset some operating losses in the early years,” Radermacher said. “We want these to be sustainable and we don’t want the early struggles financially to impact the long-term viability, sustainability of a child care center moving forward.”

The school district, in turn, would be responsible for staffing the facility, along with all operating costs.

He said it is a needed investment to fill one of the community’s biggest needs. Currently, it is estimated there is a need for at least 200 additional child care slots in Little Falls alone. The new facility would fill an estimated 77 – 110 of those slots, and it would be available to infants through pre-school aged children. The partnership with the district would require at least 10 slots be held for infants.

Radermacher added that, even if the city built its own facility with the $1.5 million, there would be operating costs moving forward.

“So, if you’re thinking in terms of, ‘Well, that’s a lot of money to give to the school,’ if we’re only talking about what we need up front to get them going and have them sustain so that they don’t have to come back and ask us again, I think that’s a good investment,” Radermacher said.

He added that he would like to find a program that includes ways the city can help additional, start-up or existing child care centers with operating costs using its remaining ARPA funds.

“We have resources available to us to do that,” he said. “I think, for the needs that we’re facing, especially in the growing demand that we’re going to have on workforce, we do know that one of the barriers to workforce in our community is access to child care. It certainly was the case in my own experience.”

Zylka added that, in discussions with the school, it has been discussed that the facility could also be used as a learning opportunity. The district has expressed interest in offering on-the-job training to students, which would also potentially be available to other providers.

He called it an opportunity that “affords itself probably once in a lifetime.”

“I think it’s an opportunity we have to seize, and it’s just investing in our community,” Zylka said.

Council Member James Storlie expressed concern over the partnership with the school district. He said he was afraid it would solve one problem, but create two or three others down the road.

In speaking with private child care providers, he said some of them feared they would lose children to the new facility, particularly in the infant and toddler age range. Storlie said he didn’t want to risk putting existing providers out of business, and felt the partnership was counterproductive to what the city is trying to do to help providers.

“There’s way more need for child care spots than there would be created in this endeavor, if this is to go through,” Radermacher said. “For any start-up child care provider, any existing child care provider, they’re not going to be losing kids that they can’t otherwise fill. The need is too great. There is so much demand for spots, regardless of the age group.”

Storlie asked, if that was the case, why providers were concerned. Council Member Frank Gosiak said it is likely they don’t realize the size of the facility and the extent of the demand. Council Member Raquel Lundberg suggested that it may be a case of misinformation spreading.

Radermacher said, even if the city were to build a facility of its own, without the school, using private operators, it would create new spots and competition for providers in the community. That is why, he said, he wants the city to use other funding to ensure existing providers or private start-ups are not disadvantaged.

It’s an initiative on which he said the city should be “on the forefront,” regardless.

“Unfortunately, everything that I’ve been through for seven years with this community has started from day one when I started here because I couldn’t move here with my entire family because we didn’t have a spot for child care,” Radermacher said.

He said he has talked to providers, licensers, the school and even testified at the state Legislature on the issue of child care. In those conversations, he said there were concerns — which he shared — about the public operating a center. He said he expressed to the district that it must operate in a way that’s fair and competitive with all of the private sector providers.

“To be concerned that you’re going to lose spots to the school and that you’re not going to be able to replace them, I think is completely unfounded and that has not been expressed to me from any of the providers,” Radermacher said.

“This is a chance to use these dollars in a way that’s going to make an impact,” he added. “It’s not going to solve the problem. The problem’s still going to be there, but it’s going to be a much smaller one.”

Zylka said he would guess that almost every community “in greater Minnesota” would have loved to have gotten $1.5 million in funding for child care. It’s an issue with which he said communities throughout the state are dealing.

Advantages to partnering with the school, he added, would be that there is already food service on the property. The site itself is also part of the deal, meaning the city would not have to deal with land acquisition.

“With that $1.5 million, I don’t think we could do something on our own that would suffice to the amount of spots that we need in this community,” Zylka said.

“I think we’re very fortunate that we got this $1.5 million offered to us,” he continued. “Otherwise we’d be spinning our wheels for another seven to 10 years.”

Storlie said he recognized there is a problem with child care in the community. However, he continued to express concern over providers losing out on business. He also did not know whether or not a public entity would have to adhere to the same requirements and regulations as a private business.

Lundberg told him she felt he could safely assure providers that the new facility will operate under the same rules and regulations they do, and that it would not pose a threat to their businesses.

“What if it does though?” Storlie said.

“It won’t,” Lundberg responded.

“How can you guarantee that?” Storlie said. “You can’t guarantee that. Will we put it in the agreement that the school district can’t take any of these children from a private provider? Will that be in there, so they will be guaranteed that they won’t lose a child to the school district?”

Zylka related the concern to new businesses coming to town. He said the city can’t offer any assurances to existing business that someone new in town won’t attract any of their employees.

Going back to the notion of the district providing on-the-job training for students, Gosiak said he had seen a similar set-up in Holdingford. He said the training programs in Holdingford were successful, and even resulted in some students starting their own child care businesses after high school

“I think working with the school system is a good idea because that is the age group we’re dealing with,” Gosiak said. “They understand more about what the state mandates as far as regulations than anyone else, because they have to abide by every one of those laws all of the time. I think it’s a good agreement, personally.”

Council Member Leif Hanson added that he was also in favor of partnering with the school. He said it would ultimately allow the city to get more of a facility than it would “striking out on our own.”

The city would also not be responsible for staffing the center, or for other costs such as cleaning it, monitoring it, maintenance and more.

“It’s not an anchor tied around our waist for the rest of time,” Hanson said.

Storlie said, knowing the need that exists in the community, he would continue to look at it as the issue moves forward. He said he just wanted to bring forward concerns he has heard from providers.

He also said he didn’t want to approve $5,100 for the environmental review if it was something with which he didn’t agree.

Radermacher said, if the city has to amend the agreement and find another location to do the environmental assessment, that would be an available option.

“If that is a concern of yours, the environmental review has to be completed,” he said. “We get no money if we don’t do an environmental review. So we better approve $5,100 and get that started because that’s going to take six weeks. We’re already at Oct. 3.”

“As long as it doesn’t bind us into something else,” Storlie said.

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