A group of area child care providers are asking the La Crosse County Board to fund a number of initiatives to help them recover from the impacts of the pandemic with just over $2.9 million from federal COVID-19 relief funds.
At a special meeting Wednesday night, leaders of the child care sector pitched a proposal to the board outlining a request to help fund one-time stipends for child care centers, accreditation support, training and recruitment, business development grants and more.
“Our community cannot afford to lose another child care program,” said Jodi Widuch, executive director of The Parenting Place.
This is an alternative proposal to the School District of La Crosse, which has similarly asked the county to consider using $696,000 to help open a daycare facility within the district that would target staff with children and low-income families.
The child care providers said the district’s plan would hurt them by taking away workers. They said the existing workforce needs to be repaired and made sustainable before new child care centers could be opened.
People are also reading…
Their proposal recommends alternatively using the funds for a “redefined” version of the school district’s neighborhood child care proposal.
Either of these proposals would be funded by the county’s allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Those that collaborated on the child care provider’s proposal include Coulee Children’s Center, the La Crosse Area Family YMCA Child Care, La Crosse Toddle Inn Daycare, Little Feet and Helpful Hands, Sprout Child Care and The Parenting Place — all of which expressed that child care centers in the area have been struggling since the pandemic.
There are about 4,516 children under the age of 5 in La Crosse County who are in need of child care, but only about 2,494 slots open, according to their proposal.
Angie Wells, the executive director at Coulee Children’s Center, said that there are currently 35 enrollment openings at their center that can’t be filled because of a lack of qualified educators available to work.
“There are no openings, there are only waiting lists,” Widuch said.
But simply opening new child care centers won’t solve the problem, the providers said, because there is a workforce shortage.
“Really without some of the strategies that we have proposed, staffing in child care is a zero-sum game. If you hire someone here, you’re taking them from over here,” said Audra Wieser.
There are currently 74 staff openings at child care centers in La Crosse County, the providers said, leaving anywhere between 296 to 962 openings for children at these centers that can’t be filled.
Additionally, they reported that five centers in the area are facing closure because they lack the staff, and two centers said they are likely to close in a year without any support to address the staffing shortage.
To tackle this, the group of providers is asking for $1.1 million for one-time stipends to child care centers in the area, part of Phase 1 of their proposal.
These stipends would be distributed to centers to be used as incentives to retain staff. Centers would receive $150 for every worker per month. This stipend could be used for wages, benefits or other incentives, and the child care centers would decide exactly how to use them to help keep staff on board.
The proposal also asks for financial support to seek accreditation, or ratings of child care centers that in-turn help the centers receive more funding from other sources.
In Phase 2, the plan focuses on bringing new workers to the field. The group is in particular asking for help to create a new three-week curriculum to help workers become qualified quicker.
“We are hopeful that La Crosse County will be the innovation that is out there right now,” said Sherry Picha, co-owner of Sprout Childcare, saying the new curriculum would be a more sustainable path.
In addition, Phase 2 asks for funds to expand a program that connects high schoolers to careers in child care or a marketing campaign. In total, recruitment funds are $108,600.
The third phase of the proposal is to then increase the amount of quality child care in the area.
This includes grants that help existing child care centers to expand or act as start-up funds for new centers, including family or in-home daycares.
This phase also includes the alternative to the school district’s neighborhood model, and the group of providers said they would pursue something similar to a program in Tangelo Park, Florida, that relies on heavy input and involvement from the community to invest in its early childhood education.
This model in La Crosse would work with existing businesses to expand or add instead of competing against them, the providers said.
In total, the plan presented by the providers would add about 1,162 child care slots in the county. The groups described the proposal as a compromise among providers as the best way to help each other collectively.
Supervisors on Wednesday showed early support for the model, though they had many questions about the impact the pandemic has had on child care providers and the impact this proposal would have in addressing it. The meeting lasted more than two hours, most of that spent on discussion and questions.
“Really seems like a bigger bang for those ARPA funds,” supervisor Rick Cornforth said.
This request is in addition to a request by the Parenting Place for $350,000 from the city of La Crosse’s ARPA funds to additionally bolster child care in the area. That request was heading before the Finance & Personnel Committee on Thursday evening, and the full city council next week.
The county has set aside $3 million in ARPA money to fund child care efforts, meaning if the board chose to move forward with the providers’ request, it would use up almost all of those funds.
The county board has been kicking the proposal from the school district down the road while it waited to hear from the providers in the area, but the board is expected to take it up again later this month. Time will tell if the board will take up the child care providers’ proposal instead or in addition to that.
IN PHOTOS & VIDEOS: Riverfest 2022