We need more daycare!

Courtesy photo

LEAD — Childcare availability is directly connected to economic development and workforce availability, but with just one state certified daycare in the Lead-Deadwood area, one city commissioner wants to brainstorm ideas to fill a widening gap for the youngest residents of the twin cities.

“We know workforce is a major issue,” said Lead City Commissioner Kayla Klein. “Everyone in every community that I’ve been to in the Black Hills has signs on their walls or has reduced hours, and some of the information is showing us that part of that problem is the lack of childcare.”

Klein, who was the director of First Step Childcare Center in Deadwood and who now advocates at the state level with Early Learner South Dakota, said she has some ideas for helping to provide more childcare options in the Lead-Deadwood area, particularly for infants through age 5. But she wants to hear from members of the community and other childcare providers about their needs and ideas. That’s why she is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. Oct. 19, at Lead City Hall.

According to listings provided by the S.D. Department of Social Services, First Step Childcare Center in Deadwood is the only state certified and licensed facility available to provide care for children infants through 5 years old. That daycare center has a 20-child waiting list, and Klein said she suspects that it could be even longer than that, since parents often won’t join a waiting list once it gets long. The Handley Center Preschool is also full, but Klein said even that program is only part time.

“So that doesn’t help a parent who wants to work from 9-5,” she said.

Childcare is an issue across the entire Black Hills and throughout the country, Klein said. That’s because daycares are not immune from the workforce shortage that is sweeping the nation. But unlike many businesses, Klein said daycare centers struggle with an inability to offer increased wages or hiring bonuses as work incentives.

“When I talked to the YMCA in Rapid City, they had 17 openings for child care workers,” Klein said. “That means they’re closing rooms. Their capacity could be higher, but they can’t get kids because their staff shortage is just as bad as everyone else. But here’s the thing, they can’t increase their rates. McDonalds, for example, is giving this higher than normal starting wage and sign-on bonuses. Your typical childcare center can’t do that because they’re not for profit, or they are living off a shoestring budget anyway.”

“So, I see this as affecting trying to bring new workforce into the area,” Klein continued. “The families who already live here who may want to go back to work but they can’t, and the fact that we don’t have another licensed, registered with the state of South Dakota location that could increase capacity in Lead, I would really like to see and talk more about how we can find a way to try and help expand that capacity.”

That’s why Klein called for the brainstorming meeting. In her experience working with non-profit organizations, communities are more effective when they collaborate together. Some ideas for fixing the problem, she said, could include implementing a non-profit program called Starting Strong, which operates in Rapid City. Starting Strong operates on donations, including a $50,000 grant from the city of Rapid City, to offer scholarships for certified daycare centers to offer. The scholarships are paid directly to the daycare centers, and are intended to fill the gap between parents whose incomes are at poverty levels to meet childcare assistance, and those who just barely make too much to receive assistance.

“There are children who can receive childcare assistance, which is money that comes directly from the state. That’s the only way the state funds childcare. But you have to be extremely impoverished in order to qualify for that. Then there leaves this gap,” Klein said. She added that when she worked as the director of First Step Childcare Center in Deadwood, at one time 25% of the families’ incomes qualified for childcare assistance. Comparatively, 50% of the families qualified for free and reduced meals at the school.

“You still have to be low income and technically poverty level to receive free meals,” she said. “But the difference

between those two percentages is vast. So, you have all of these parents who are struggling, and they can literally make $20 more and go from getting full childcare coverage to nothing. It’s ridiculous. Starting Strong is trying to give scholarships to these kids who don’t quite qualify for childcare assistance, and they give it directly to the childcare center or the business, for the child.”

Additionally, Klein said parents who qualify for the Starting Strong scholarships are able to choose which qualifying childcare centers they will use. This offers a healthy competition among centers to provide quality care.

Another idea for increasing childcare capacity, Klein said, could be businesses that help with the cost.

“We’ve seen businesses subsidize childcare in order to hold a spot for their employees,” she said. “(Under this model) the childcare always holds a spot for that employer. So, it works great for both entities. The employer now has a reliable employee, and the childcare center has a reliable fee coming in, which they rely on to pay their employees.”

In addition to providing family assistance, Klein said there are several programs out there that provide training and guidance for daycare workers, as well as to help childcare providers navigate the business of owning a daycare center. Early Learner South Dakota has recently partnered with S.D. CEO to provide free financial training that is specific to childcare center owners, or anyone who wants to explore the possibility of opening a center. The training covers how to set fees, how to balance the budget, and how to expand for business growth.

“A lot of folks who open these places don’t have a business background and they are lucky if they do,” Klein said. “I don’t think a lot of childcare providers see themselves as business owners, which is what they are.”

Overall, Klein said she hopes this month’s meeting will be the catalyst for work to increase childcare capacity in Lead-Deadwood.

“I’m all about realizing that brainstorming and collaboration is always key to successful endings,” she said. “I don’t want to assume that I know what all of the parents in Lead-Deadwood are going through. I do have a lot of solutions, and I have a lot of ideas, but I don’t want to be missing something big either. My biggest hope is to get as much feedback and make sure we’re not missing the mark before making any decisions.”

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