Barron School District officials are weighing a referendum on adding a child care center to an elementary school.
The proposal highlights the broad implications of the lack of affordable childcare in rural areas.
“Rural Wisconsin faces a crisis in availability of high-quality, affordable child care that affects parents’ ability to work, the current and future well-being of children, and the capacity of businesses to operate and grow,” according to a Dec. 16 report from the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity.”
Childcare largely determines where parents live, work and send their kids to school.
For this reason, Barron Schools have lost some students through open enrollment, said Superintendent Diane Tremblay.
“Our Board of Education asked me to try to solve our financial challenges where open enrollment is concerned. We wanted to find effective means to an end which would assure that we retain all district families,” she said.
Surveying of district families showed childcare to be a major concern.
“These families were looking for childcare when the kids were small and there was a waiting list in Barron, so they had to go out of our district to find care. During that care, their kids made friends with all the other kids in the daycare and that connection led them to open enroll out of our district when they became school age,” said Tremblay.
This fact was also evident in the 2018 housing study done by Barron County. The county housing study stated specifically that those working finance and health care fields were particularly dissatisfied with the lack of childcare affordability and availability.
The Rural Prosperity report indicated that childcare is a concern throughout Wisconsin.
The report stated, “Virtually every town, county and city reports a shortage of slots and long waiting lists.”
This challenge limits what education and careers parents can pursue.
“Parents who cannot find affordable, convenient, quality, safe childcare cannot pursue work, training or education,” the report stated.
Such struggles trickle down to employers, as the childcare shortage shrinks the pool of workers. Parents may have to work opposite shifts to ensure childcare, especially when kids aren’t in school.
“Child care is especially hard to find for those working outside daytime 8 a.m.-5 p.m. hours. And childcare is expensive, which at times means it makes no economic sense for a parent to accept a low-paying job that doesn’t cover the cost of childcare. Moreover, without childcare, parents cannot train for the skill sets that employers need to fill,” the report stated.
And further, “In 2017, ‘access to childcare’ tied with ‘employee retention’ as the number two obstacle Wisconsin employers are facing in keeping their businesses going and growing.”
Employers struggling for workers include childcare centers. The report went as far to say, “The business model for rural child care is broken.”
“A childcare teacher with an associate degree starts at $10 an hour in a group center and rarely makes more than $13 an hour, without benefits. That compares to an average of $18.57 an hour (plus benefits) for other associate degree jobs in Wisconsin,” the report stated.
Prospects for childcare center employees with bachelor’s degrees aren’t much better.
Adding insult to injury, child care workers don’t always receive much respect for what they do.
“Child care is not babysitting,” said Kris Lindstedt, who operates Creative Kids child care center in Barron.
She said, “There is so much more involved in providing this service. Over the past 6 years the regulations have changed substantially. There have been additions and updates requiring stronger, stricter rules and increased monitoring of our state licensing department. I do agree that increasing the standard for quality child care is important. However, it comes at a high price. In order to comply with these additions, the need for qualified professional staff is difficult to find, especially in an already depleted labor market.”
Lindstedt said COVID-19 has further depleted the labor market and has also caused childcare centers to close.
Armstrong said at least one local center has closed (in Chetek).
The pandemic has also increased costs for childcare centers—more costs for cleaning and supplies as well as non-monetary costs, like more stress for staff.
What about the kids?
“Research tells us that high quality child care is important to the cognitive, language and social development of young children. Consistent and emotionally supportive care paired with positive relationships with supportive adults, are hugely beneficial to children and families. Research also shows that the earlier you invest in children and their families, the greater the return is on the district or community investment,” said Amber Carlsrud, who helps run the Bear Cub Den program at Barron Schools.
The Rural Prosperity Report also emphasizes the outcomes of good child care, stating, “For every dollar spent on early childhood, between four and nine dollars are recouped for society and the individual in the form of lower special education costs, higher income, lower health expenditures, higher graduation rates, lower teen pregnancy rates, lower incarceration rates and other indicators.”
Carlsrud added, “All money aside, partnering with families in settings like high quality child care, home visiting, and within our building, creates relationships that last throughout a child’s school career. When families feel supported and know more about their child’s development, we see greater growth in children.
Healthy families create healthy kids—physically, emotionally, and academically.”
Barron Schools has recently taken steps to help with immediate childcare needs.
Tremblay said, “Two years ago we started our Bear Cub Den which offered care for our school aged kids before and after school. This past year we added programming for wraparound service for our 4K students. Parents have been very appreciative for this program.”
But more is needed, be it public or privately-funded child care, or both. That debate may play out in Barron in the Spring Election on April 6. The Barron School Board is expected to vote Monday, Jan. 18, on the wording of a referendum, one question being if the district should levy an additional $1.9 million for a daycare addition at Woodland Elementary.
Tremblay concluded, “We strongly believe that an early childhood center on our BASD campus would serve our families best and would add strength and vigor to our community as a whole.”