Petersburg Borough Assembly Will Consider Funding Program to Address Child-Care Crisis


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Kids play outside as part of Kinder Skog, a state-licensed educational nature program in Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of Kinder Skog)

Petersburg’s Early Childhood Education Task Force is seeking Borough Assembly approval to fund a program supporting continuing education for childcare workers. The program would be an adaptation of the Juneau HEARTS—Hiring, Educating, and Retaining Teaching Staff—program. It’s meant to help address the childcare access crisis in Petersburg by reducing staff turnover. 

Petersburg is in the midst of a childcare access crisis. According to the Petersburg Childcare Needs Survey, 44 percent of caregivers don’t work because of a lack of childcare. The Borough Assembly appointed an Early Childhood Education Task Force to help figure out how to approach the issue on a Borough level. Chelsea Tremblay heads that task force. She gave an update to the Borough Assembly at its December 5 meeting alongside Katie Holmlund.

Holmlund is on the task force and runs Kinder Skog, a local childcare center. Tremblay said the task force has been looking into the Juneau HEARTS program. They recently met with Brian Holst, who heads Juneau’s Economic Development Council. 

“He shared the methodology behind the program,” said Tremblay, “the positive effect it’s had on staff turnover and other lessons they’ve seen in trying to tackle this problem in their community. His presentation helped to answer some questions members of the task force had, and a few days later, we unanimously voted to approve the program.” 

The proposed program would be similar to Juneau’s. It pays childcare workers between two and five thousand a year for continuing education in the field. In a later interview with KFSK, Tremblay said sometimes continuing education is already required for maintaining certifications. 

“We all do better with more training,” said Tremblay. “And so, continuing people to stay curious and stay invested in the field is really the goal, as well as demonstrating a gratitude for the kind of work that they’re doing… It’s such an underpaid position for the kind of work they’re doing, which is basically helping raise humans for our community.”

Assembly Member Donna Marsh voiced concerns about the program at the meeting. She asked what would happen after the initial funding ran out, which could be in one or two years. 

“It was to the tune of $40,000 a year that this would cost,” said Marsh. “When the ARPA funds run out, when these things run out, I wonder what Plan B is.”

The task force is requesting up to $40,000 in funding through the Borough’s ARPA grant. That’s federal funding for COVID relief. The funding has already been earmarked for the task force. Tremblay says the task force doesn’t know yet where they would get funding for future years. But she said starting the program to see if it works would be a huge step in the process.

“In order to pursue further funding, sometimes you need the program to already be going,” said Tremblay. “So you can have demonstrated impact of what the program is doing. And so collecting that data will absolutely be a priority for us.”

In a later interview, Marsh said she doesn’t want to add costs that she thinks Petersburg residents will ultimately shoulder. 

“Whether it’s grant-funded or putting it as a budget item on either the borough or the hospital, it increases costs,” said Marsh.

The hospital has volunteered to take care of the paperwork for the program without charging the Borough. But Marsh doesn’t think that labor would actually be free. 

“If you give the hospital yet another thing to pay for,” Marsh said, “I think the costs are still going to be passed down to the consumer.”

The presentation by Holst to the task force did address the economics of investing in early childhood education. Holst said research shows a sixteen percent inflation-adjusted return on investment into early childhood development programs. And according to research, the earlier the investment in children, the greater return. Prenatal programs have the greatest economic return, followed by programs for ages zero to three. This model is called the Heckman Curve.

Marsh is also concerned about the role of government in this plan. That’s in line with how she campaigned when running for the Borough Assembly this year. She said she supported private enterprise and keeping government small. 

“I struggle with government taking over childcare,” Marsh said. “To me, that is best left to private industry.”

Holmlund responded to Marsh’s concerns at the assembly meeting.

“It’s not the government trying to take over childcare,” said Holmlund. “This is a small way to be supporting our childcare workforce right now so that hopefully, we can build a stronger childcare network here locally.”

Tremblay is not in the field of childcare herself. She says it’s important to trust the experts for direction. 

“We have well over a century’s worth of professional childcare and youth programming experience on the task force,” said Tremblay. “Trusting experts to know what will work for them, and then supporting them in pursuing that wherever we can, is kind of the role of being a representative democracy.”

Marsh says she ran an in-home child care center for a few years when her kids were young. She said she thinks it could be great to encourage new private care centers. 

“I like the incentivizing business owners, to childcare providers to have incentives,” said Marsh. “Maybe subsidiz[ing the] cost of getting going—whether it’s inspections or permitting, things like that.”

Tremblay says that if this program is adopted, the task force could easily get immediate feedback. The task force has three people on it who head childcare centers in Petersburg and one person, Becky Turland, who would be on the paperwork side of things at the hospital. 

“It’s pretty dreamy to be able to have people on the task force who themselves will qualify,” said Tremblay, “who then get to make sure that their employees understand how the process works. And then if it ends up being too complicated or messy or whatever, then they can bring it back and say, ‘Hey, we need this to actually be accessible to people.’ And so, that feedback loop is there.”

Tremblay says that adopting a continuing education program is just one piece of what the task force hopes to do. 

“It doesn’t solve every single problem,” said Tremblay, “because this is an issue in our community that has a lot of facets, but it’s something that could help with one aspect of the problem.”

This proposal is the first ask for funds by the Early Childhood Education Task Force. They’ve been meeting for about six months. If implemented, the program could start as soon as January with first payments going out around June. 

The assembly will consider awarding funding for the proposed program at their next meeting, which is on the evening of December 19th. The video of Brian Holst discussing the Juneau HEARTS program is available on the Borough’s website.

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