Pitkin County to give child care workers a financial boost | News


Early childhood educators in Pitkin County are going to get an unexpected financial boost starting in the first quarter of 2023.

Pitkin County commissioners approved a plan this week to spend up to $1,575,000 over the next three years in a stipend program for teachers and staff members of licensed child care centers. Qualified teachers and staffers will be eligible for a $1,500 stipend per quarter for a total of $6,000 annually in 2023 and 2024, according to program details outlined by Ashley Perl, county resiliency manager. In the third year of the program in 2025, they would be eligible for $750 per quarter or a total of $3,000.

“This helps with inflation and transportation and maybe your rent just went up,” Perl said. “It makes it feasible for people to stay in these jobs.”

Pitkin County will pay for the program from federal funds it received from the American Rescue Plan Act during the COVID-19 pandemic. The county received nearly $3.5 million and earmarked the funds for early childhood education and affordable housing, but hadn’t picked specific programs prior to this week. The funds must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2025.

County officials initially thought they would use the funds designated for child care on infrastructure, but Perl met with operators and learned their biggest need was helping retain and recruit teachers.

“What I heard is that staff are leaving the profession for other lines of work,” Perl told the commissioners. “Either the pay or the benefits of being an early childhood educator doesn’t fit the needs of the staff that are in it. We know that there is a challenge in attracting new educators and staff, and then we know that housing is a big factor in this.”

There are about 100 staff and educators in 13 early childhood learning centers in Pitkin County. They provide vital help for hundreds of families with two working parents.

Adele Melnick, executive director of Growing Years, a nonprofit child care center in the Pitkin County portion of Basalt, said it is “amazing” to see the early childhood education profession acknowledged.

“We are thrilled that our early childhood teachers are being appreciated,” she said. “I know our teachers are going to be thrilled.”

Growing Years is fortunate to have relatively low turnover among its staff of 16. But it is experiencing increasing financial pressure because higher costs for mortgages and rents are outpacing increases in pay. Melnick said one of her employees faced a rent increase of $1,000 per month.

Most of her staff members commute from western Garfield County. One teacher recently quit because of the grueling commute. Melnick is hopeful the stipend can ease financial burdens on staffers and possibly even help some of them move closer to Basalt. She was confident the county program would help retain and recruit teachers to the profession.

Melnick said she shared the information with the board of directors of Growing Years and with some of the teachers but hadn’t been able to spread the word yet among all employees. A letter was sent from the county to providers on Wednesday and Perl plans on meeting with providers to discuss the program.

The Aspen Community Fund will process the applications and allocate the money to providers, who will funnel it to their employees’ paychecks. The application process will be quick and simple, Perl said. There will be a $30,000 administrative fee in 2023 and 2024 for Aspen Community Fund to run the program. It will drop to $15,000 in 2025.

For Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, the spending of the American Rescue Plan funds couldn’t come quick enough. She urged her colleagues to approve the program without getting “caught up” in the high level of analysis the board tends to do before acting.

McNicholas Kury noted that the American Rescue Plan funds were intended to provide emergency grants and investments in small businesses to help them retain workers.

“I feel that we’ve been really slow to meet this,” she said.

Commissioners were concerned about creating a program that helps teachers, then curtailing it after two years and potentially ending it after three years.

“After three years it’s gone, it’s over,” said Commissioner Greg Poschman. “I’m wishing we could build something that has some longevity.”

County Manager Jon Peacock said the program would provide immediate relief and buy time for the county to come up with longer-term aid for early childhood educators. He and Perl stressed that a lot of changes are being discussed at the state level for preschool education and different funding could become available in the next year or so.

The county also is partnering with the Aspen Community Fund, a central clearinghouse of aid for charitable organizations, in hopes of finding grants and contributions to continue the program. Pitkin County will consider using its unassigned general funds in the future to supplement the program.

Perl wrote in a letter to child care providers that the program is a start. “This is not the long-term solution nor sustainable, but will buy us some time while we work on a longer-term plan,” the letter said.

She stressed to commissioners that the program might need alterations as it advances, based on feedback from the providers, developments at the state level and broader revenue streams.

“This is $500 per month. It’s not a big amount, unfortunately,” she said. “It brings up a child care staff member to being competitive with some of the low-wage job opportunities in our community. This is helping but it doesn’t move being an early childhood educator into some new category of professional wages, unfortunately.”

Commissioner Steve Child suggested that child care workers should get the same high priority as police and firefighters for affordable housing openings in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority network. That would alleviate the threat of large rent hikes.

The city of Aspen is considering a similar stipend program. Commissioner Patti Clapper, who chairs the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, said it will be important to coordinate with the city to stretch the dollars and not award stipends to the same teachers and staff members.

“We will be reaching out to the city much sooner than later,” Clapper said.

Perl didn’t anticipate a problem in coordinating the programs. Only two of the 13 child care providers in Pitkin County operate in the city limits, she said.

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