EDITORIAL: Caring for the Young, Part Three

Read Part One

The audience in Town Hall, in the Council Chambers, was about half-full of mature Pagosa Springs residents on Tuesday morning.

Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, it was half-empty?

We’d come to hear a presentation by the Early Care and Education Work Group, to be delivered to a joint meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners, on the subject of “available and affordable early care and education” for children age 0-5 years.

Last year, the Work Group had obtained funding to hire a project coordinator, Jan Santopietro, through a grant from the El Pomar Foundation which was matched by the Town Council and the BOCC.  Ms. Santopietro kicked off the presentation by summarizing the first three “phases” of the group’s research — covering roughly the first 14 pages of the 52-page report that had been provided to the local government leaders. (You can download that report here.)

The group determined that Archuleta County has a significant shortage of childcare “slots” when compared to the number of families who claimed they would place their infants, toddlers and preschoolers in a childcare situation, if slots were available and if the cost was affordable.

The group found the tuition costs for early childcare, in Archuleta County, to be highly variable. From their report:

Tuition for full-day service in a center spans the range $150-$1100/month, depending on family income and other risk factors. Tuition for full-day service in a licensed home is approximately $625/month.

The group was working from the assumption that placing young children — even infants under the age of 18 months — in some type of institutional care outside of the family setting, was beneficial to society, and to the child.  (We’ll dig into that messy assumption in a future installment of this series.)  The report also implied that the only way for Archuleta County to create a sufficient number of “affordable” early care and education slots was through some type of ongoing government subsidies. The most convenient place to obtain those subsidies, it seems, was right here at home — from local taxpayers.

Which is presumably why yesterday’s presentation was being given to the Town Council and the Board of County Commissioners, instead of to some other group of local leaders.

The next presenter was David Smith, who was — I assume — the brains behind Phase IV of the group’s research. This was the section of the report that required the most “number-crunching” to come up with some type of program the Work Group felt the taxpayers might embrace.

Mr. Smith is the husband of Jean Smith, Vice President on the Seeds of Learning board of directors. Seeds of Learning is a private early care and education provider that recently obtained accreditation from the well-respected National Association for the Education of Young Children. From the Seeds website:

Creative Curriculum was chosen for Seeds because it is based on the latest research on how children learn best and has been shown through experimental and quasi-experimental studies to improve classroom quality and promote the school readiness of preschool children. Creative Curriculum meets all of the standards put forth for effective early childhood curricula by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Equally important, evaluation research provides strong evidence that the Creative Curriculum for Preschool improves classroom quality and promotes positive physical, social and cognitive outcomes for children.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Smith presented three financial models, based on the general idea that families should pay no more than 10 percent of their income for early childcare, which he said was a HUD guideline. Here he’s speaking about Model Number One:

“So what does it cost? Well, annual operating costs are easy to calculate. 171 children, $12,000 per year [per child]. So you have annual operating costs of $2 million.

“Education is expensive, isn’t it… Linda?”  Here. Mr. Smith gave a smile and a nod to school district Superintendent Linda Reed, seated in the audience.

“Very expensive.”

Before we hear how Mr. Smith and his group might propose to fund this “$12,000 a year,” we might stop for a moment and consider that a beginning, certified teacher for the Archuleta School District earns about $34,000. Add benefits and retirement, and we have a cost of maybe $43,000 per year. Then put overhead on top, and we’re looking at an operating cost of perhaps $55,000 per year.

This teacher will be in charge of supervising and educating up to 35 students.

A licensed childcare provider, working out of her own home — with minimal overhead, and covering her own “benefits and retirement” — can care for up to 10 children. At $12,000 per child, that would produce an annual income of $120,000 a year.

The average working class wage in Archuleta County is closer to a beginning teacher salary, but often without the government-class benefits. The average wages for a mother of young children — such as the stay-at-home moms who typically offer non-subsidized childcare in their homes — is probably closer to $25,000.

$25,000 is roughly the cost of two children, if we wanted to accept Mr. Smith’s model.

But when you build a “childcare center” and properly staff it, with office managers, facility directors, marketing managers, certified teachers, and so on… then perhaps Mr. Smith’s estimate of $12,000 per child is accurate.

Mr. Smith continued to outline the $2 million funding example:

“Tuition would account for 20 percent of that total cost. So the actual [operating cost] deficit would be $1.6 million per year, to serve 75 percent of the children in Archuleta County in this age group.

“This is an example of a funding problem. We recognize that this is not a fundable number. We cannot, in our community, come up with [$1.6 million] every year to cover operating expenses. It just isn’t possible at this time.

“So what can we do to reduce the costs?”

Obviously, based on the numbers I suggested above, the simplest way to reduce costs would be to promote home-based childcare solutions, instead of institutional facilities.

But that obvious solution wasn’t even on the radar, during the Tuesday morning presentation by the ECE group. Tomorrow, I will suggest a possible reason why this group of highly intelligent citizens would neglect such an obvious solution…

Read Part Four…

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Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.