Child care shortage seen in Garden City, nation

Meghan Flynn
Garden City Telegram
The supply demand gap for childcare slots more than doubled from 2012 to 2018, increasing from a shortage of 485 slots to 1,850 slots. The Childcare Center at Turning Point Church of The Nazarene will help combat the shortage.

A lack of child care slots and locations exists in Garden City and the wider Finney County area.

Lona DuVall, president/CEO of the Finney County Economic Development Corporation, said the lack of child care in the area was noticed by the FCEDC as early as 2012.

The problem has since gotten worse, DuVall said. In 2012 there was a shortage of about 485 child care slots, by 2018 shortage had more than doubled to about 1,850 slots.

DuVall said they knew there was a shortage, but nobody did anything, FCEDC didn't even get involved until the lack of child care started affecting employers, who were having a hard time recruiting and retaining staff because of the lack of reliable and accessible child care.

A perfect storm caused the shortage, DuVall said. It started with population growth, economic growth and an increase in demand for qualified workforce but the biggest factor was a change in state regulations.

The state used to have two levels: registered day care and licensed facilities. Registered day care had lesser requirements, but it was still checked out by the state to make sure it was safe for children, DuVall said. Traditionally these were home day cares.

The state did away with registered facilities and now only has licensed facilities, DuVall said. Many of the home providers dropped out of the business when this happened as costs were going to increase, as well as the time required to manage the paperwork side of the business.

"A lot of these folks, they're in it because they love kids, they're not in it because they love the regulatory environment. That created challenges," she said. "Literally overnight, we found ourselves with even less care available and more population growth than we'd experienced in a very long time."

So, to help find a solution to the shortage, FCEDC jumped in.

Their first step was to look into private providers, DuVall said. They found some, but the price range per week, per child, was too high for the area.

The average cost was between $270 and $300 per week; that's difficult for parents who are used to paying in the $150 and $170 per week range.

"Looking at that, we can't double the cost of child care every week and expect that to work for everybody," she said. "It would work for some people for sure, but it wouldn't work for the broad number of people who were short child care."

DuVall said the solution the FCEDC found was to create a model that fits the unique make-up of the area, is sustainable, is scale-able and can be replicated in other communities.

They created the Finney County Childcare & Early Learning Network, a standalone nonprofit with its own board of directors with representation from public entities, private employers and early childhood expertise.

The organization will own, operate and manage some of its own facilities but will also serve as a support for any child care provider, whether it be home providers, other centers or faith-based centers, DuVall said.

"Anything you can think of when you think of child care and early learning, the network is designed to support that," she said. "We don't want to compete with anybody else who's in the business, this is really about supporting them."

Currently, there are five centers in various stages of development.

The mission of the Finney County Childcare & Early Learning Network is to provide "sustainable community-wide child care that meets the needs of today's workforce while improving the opportunities of future generations." The future Childcare Center at Turning Point Church of The Nazarene is one center helping that goal come to life.

One of the centers is a management contract with the Turning Point Church of the Nazarene Childcare Center.

Faithe Haeck, connections pastor and program director, said the child care center began its journey in 2013 with the previous pastor. The building was finished; however, they were not able to acquire a license.

Haeck and her husband came to pastor at the church in August 2020, and the FCEDC approached them about opening the child care center, as it knew they had tried to get a license and the facility was the closest to being ready to go.

"We were able to tap into a grant through the county to get the equipment, the toys, the furniture, everything from potty chairs to cribs to cubbies to curriculum," she said. "We were able to use that grant to get those things. We have those now, so we are just continuing the process, and it is a process."

Currently, they are in the process of rezoning the building and getting a conditional-use permit to run a day care with the city, and they have initial approval from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on the site plan, Haeck said.

"Now we're working with our architect to fill out the paperwork to submit to the fire marshall," she said. "He will come out and once we have his approval and we have city approval, which will be April 13, we'll have everything done, then we will submit our application to get our license to have a day care."

Haeck said the approval process by KDHE takes about 60-90 days, so somewhere near the end of June into the middle of July they should receive a temporary license to open the center before a final approval to get a permanent license.

Haeck said the facility is scheduled to have up to 60 children between the ages of 12 weeks and 5 years old.

"Our goal is to make it as educational as possible, to have our children ready for kindergarten when they walk in the front doors," she said. "It'll be care, but it'll also be instruction, we'll be building from even young ones, it'll be building those brain cells and strengthening those different things developmentally."

Haeck is excited to open — it's been a long process — and knows this will help with the child care shortage, which is a problem everywhere.

"With all the businesses we have now and then hearing of the businesses coming in plus the housing development and there only being one like actual child care center, I know there's home providers, but obviously there is a need for parents to find care, good care, for their kids, so I think it just seems like a huge need in Garden City," she said.

DuVall said the sweet spot for maximum capacity for day cares is 59 or fewer in each center. It helps keep day cares sustainable.

"That's just a mechanism in the regulation, as soon as you hit 60 it triggers a new position, that you have to pay ... you have to put in an executive director, and that position can't be counted in your ratios," she said.

For example, if a day care has 18 3- to 5-year-olds, there has to be two adults with them at all times, DuVall said. That's a workable because the adults are counted in the ratio and are interacting with the children.

As long as a classroom is filled to capacity, the staff can be afforded, DuVall said. What can't be afforded is an executive director position who can't count in the ratios, can't teach class and can only act as the director of the center.

"If you go to 61 kids, you will immediately lose significant amounts of money every year," she said. "It's not until you get well over 100 kids before you can compensate for that director position."

When the FCEDC first began looking into creating child care facilities, they had to decide if they wanted to create a "baby warehouse," a facility that can handle a lot of children seeing as there is a 1,000 child care slot shortage, or not, DuVall said. It came down to which provides a better quality child care for the community – small or large?

"The bigger you get, the less oversight you have, the less quality you can insure in that early learning experience," she said. "We believe, through all of our research, that the best way to approach it financially and from a best practice standpoint is by limiting the centers to 59 maximum at each center."

One challenge to creating more child care opportunities in the area is finding usable buildings, DuVall said. They have looked at a number of buildings to possibly renovate to meet regulations; however, few have fit the bill. It's easier to build new.

"The only building that we have found that really did work for that was the former nursing home facility on Third Street, and that only worked because we were able to take down walls between residents' rooms and they already had lots of plumbing – they had toilets everywhere," she said. "That's usually what gets you, your rooms are too small or you have to go back in and trench to put in new plumbing. It just becomes impossible."

Another challenge, which also has to deal with buildings, is finding landlords, as the Childcare & Early Learning Network doesn't own the buildings, DuVall said. The centers are nonprofits and as such have limited funds.

"You have to have a landlord kind of with a philanthropic understanding, that they're not going to get the market rate from that building," she said. "It really is, part of what they're doing is altruistic, that they recognize this is a good for the community, kind of thing."

DuVall said the overall goal of the Childcare & Early Learning Network is to create more child care opportunities and to help support and sustain those that already exist.

An example of support they hope to provide is by creating a sub pool of day care workers who have already been vetted, gone through background checks, etc, who can then help out home providers so they can take time off, go on vacation with their families and not displace the children they take care of.

"We think that will be one of the ways that we can sustain more of our home day cares, because honestly that creates a challenge for people to want to be in that business, because they don't get time off with their own families," she said.

Because of the position they are in, DuVall said, they hear about the challenges that child care providers face, so they have designed the network to be the answer to those challenges.

"A child care provider, a home provider, a center operator, they don't have to join anything, they can just simply contact the network for support for whatever that is," she said. "Whether it's advocacy, whether it's training, helping with staffing, whatever the case is, the network will really serve as a support system for the child care."