Jul 27, 2016Times Argus
BARRE — Cost, capacity and communication are the three “C’s” that a blue-ribbon commission evaluating ways to finance high quality, affordable child care in Vermont should focus on in coming months.
So say nearly 30 parents and child care providers who gathered in the Aldrich Public Library on Monday for one of five forums that was part of the commission’s two-day, five-stop listening tour. That tour included sessions in St. Johnsbury, Burlington and Barre on Monday and wrapped up in Rutland and Brattleboro on Tuesday.
The 17-member commission plans to use feedback from the five forums in drafting a report recommending strategies to support affordable, quality child care in Vermont later this year.
Judging from the response in Barre, cost is clearly an issue — both for working parents who struggle to cover child-care expenses and providers who will have to comply with new regulations that are scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.
Those regulations, as well as the state’s star-based system for rating licensed and registered child care centers, came in for some criticism during a 90-minute session that was supposed to focus on three narrow questions, but occasionally got off-track.
Commission member Reeva Murphy, deputy commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families, reminded those in attendance that the regulations, which were promulgated following an extensive public process four years ago, weren’t the subject of Monday’s forum. The session, she said, was designed to explore ways to improve access to high-quality child care and discuss what role the state should play in making that care affordable.
One Barre Town mother, who spoke early on, suggested a candid discussion of the term “high quality” might be in order — a sentiment that was later echoed by others. The woman said she had a difficult time locating a quality child-care center when she needed one and suggested the state’s five-star rating system is misleading.
“Stars mean nothing,” she said, encouraging parents to meet with providers in their homes and make their own decisions.
“It was just a nightmare trying to find quality child care,” she recalled, noting she did find a center that was more than suitable but blamed new state regulations for its owner’s decision to close in order to take a job as a preschool teacher in Barre.
Sarah Costa, the library director at Aldrich, shared a similar story in her frustrating search for child care.
“It felt like shouting into the void trying to get on to wait lists,” she said. “‘Quality’ was almost a secondary concern. … We were just trying to find something that existed.”
Costa was among those who suggested creating a comprehensive, searchable database of child-care providers that was easily accessible for parents.
Another mom agreed.
“People don’t know where even to begin,” she said.
Or when, according to Abby Fish, a Waterbury child-care provider, who suggested birthing classes weren’t too soon to start recommending parents begin seriously exploring their child care options, given wait lists that exist at many centers.
“I didn’t have a clue that I needed to find child care the moment I got pregnant,” she said. “We need to be having these conversations way earlier than we’ve had them before.”
Though Montpelier resident Cassie Wilner said she doesn’t have an immediate child-care need, she said she is already worried about what will happen when her daughter is old enough to start school and dropping her off early in the morning and picking her up in the late afternoon is no longer an option, and summer vacations are a 10-week reality that will need to be filled.
“I’m a little terrified of what will happen once school age hits,” said Wilner, who sheepishly suggested one of the more novel ideas for coming up with the funding most agree is needed to make high-quality child care affordable.
Kathleen Burroughs, who runs Kid Country Child Care Center in Montpelier, said she could live with the idea — a system that raised funds for child care through a payroll tax comparable to the one that currently exists to cover the cost of unemployment insurance
“It’s just a cost of doing business,” she said, suggesting without an infusion of outside funding, child-care providers would work under the table to avoid incurring the expense of meeting new state regulations.
“Child care, if we’re not careful, is going to become a dying profession,” she said, noting many working parents who are already struggling to pay for the service can’t absorb a rate increase.
Burroughs and Fish were among several parents and providers who were critical of new regulations they claimed were crafted without sufficient input from families.
“Listen to parents,” Fish said.
Sally Brickey, who operates a home day care in Plainfield, described the regulations as unreasonable.
“It’s almost like you’re hitting us with too much at once,” she said, prompting Murphy to steer the conversation away from the regulations that she noted providers would be given a year to comply with.
“Tonight is not the time to have that conversation,” Murphy said.
Forum participants temporarily honored Murphy’s request, though questions and complaints about the regulations occasionally resurfaced as the forum progressed.
Murphy, who acknowledged the need for better information and outreach, more family feedback and, most importantly, more funding, also heard about a capacity problem. Parents, she was told, struggled to find suitable child care options and some providers are having a hard time attracting either youngsters, qualified instructors or both.
Kristen Martin, head of school at the Montessori School of Central Vermont, said enrollment is an issue despite a five-star rating from the state.
“We have ‘quality’ (but) we don’t have the kids,” she said, suggesting that if 20 youngsters don’t enroll in the next few weeks one of the school’s classrooms will close.
Martin was among those who suggested that finding a way to make child care affordable was crucial.
Tracy Patnoe, of Mud City Kids in Morrisville, said she could accommodate 100 children at her center and was licensed for 59 until recently dropping down to 35 due to a shortage of employees.
“We don’t have the trained people to do it,” she said.
Murphy told those in attendance to “stay tuned.” The commission, she said, would be preparing its recommendations for the governor and the Legislature in November.
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