State Retention Bonuses for Childcare Workers Remain in Limbo | Education | Seven Days


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Ascension Childcare in Shelburne - COURTESY OF JUNE BUECHLER ©️ SEVEN DAYS

  • Courtesy of June Buechler ©️ Seven Days

  • Ascension Childcare in Shelburne

Last legislative session, lawmakers allocated $7 million so childcare programs could give retention bonuses to staff. For childcare center directors — many of whom are losing employees and struggling to hire for open positions — that money couldn’t come soon enough.

Throughout the summer, they waited patiently for an update. On August 9, a brief one came from the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ Child Development Division: While the agency could not yet spend the $7 million, “it is anticipated that we will receive authority in mid to late August.” Once that happened, the message said, an application would be released so childcare providers could apply for the funds.

Julie Buechler, executive director of Ascension Childcare in Shelburne, said she was hopeful when she read the update. But more than a month later, she hasn’t heard anything more about the money, and her hope has turned into frustration.

In the last month, six staff members have resigned from their positions at Ascension, a program that’s operated since 1989. Two have taken jobs with local school districts where they will have shorter hours and receive more money and better benefits. One moved to another childcare program. Two moved out of state and one left the field for mental health reasons.

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As a result, Ascension has cut enrollment and curtailed hours. While the center once served more than 72 children, it’s now able to take just 55. Until early September, the center was open for 10 hours per day, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Now it operates from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 

Early last week, Buechler and several other childcare center directors emailed staff at the Child Development Division to find out when the money would be available. She said she hasn’t heard back yet.

Contacted by Seven Days to ask about the status of the bonuses, Miranda Gray, deputy commissioner of the Child Development Division, said on Thursday that her agency “did not receive authority to spend the funds in August” as they had signaled they would. Instead, Gray said, the authorization was approved earlier this month; now the division is finalizing the applications and developing a tutorial to explain to childcare providers how to fill it out.

“[We] hope to have the application out to the field soon to apply,” Gray wrote.

Buechler is dismayed by the lack of a more concrete timeline. While she’s not sure whether the money would have convinced the staff members who resigned to stay, she said the bonuses would help her current employees take care of basic expenses and boost their morale.

“My frustration with the retention bonuses is that it’s kind of been this dangling carrot … but we don’t know exactly when it’s coming,” Buechler said.

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Ascension is far from the only childcare center that’s had to scale back services due to staffing shortages. In June, Seven Days reported on the unprecedented challenges childcare centers were having in hiring and retaining staff. Some childcare directors said workers were leaving because of burnout and advertising for new teachers often resulted in few to no applications.

Just this month, a shortage of qualified teachers led a well-established center, Heartworks Burlington, to abruptly close one infant and one toddler classroom, leaving families scrambling to find alternative care. In a letter sent on the Friday before Labor Day , the center’s CEO, David Post, told families that “despite relentless efforts,” the two classrooms would close at the beginning of the following week.

“These closures are directly tied to a shortage of qualified teachers,” Post wrote, adding he wasn’t sure when the classrooms would be able to reopen.

Janet McLaughlin, executive director of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children, said while a bigger investment in early childhood education is critical, her organization is grateful that the legislature and governor allocated money for retention bonuses. She said she hopes that the state will prioritize getting the money out to childcare centers.

“While these funds are only a ‘Band-Aid,’” McLaughlin wrote in an email, “anyone who has ever worked with young children will tell you that Band-Aids can be helpful.”

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