Pitkin County is looking to provide assistance to the city of Aspen to address a host of burgeoning issues related to child care and early childhood education.
During a work session Tuesday, county commissioners listened as Shirley Ritter, director of the city’s Kids First program, and Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of human services, spoke of an extreme lack of licensed child care spaces. A memorandum prepared for the meeting says that throughout the county, there are 30 spaces available for infants, 88 spaces for toddlers and 293 spaces for preschoolers. Child care and early childhood education providers have reported that their classrooms are full and more spaces and staff are necessary to keep up with demand.
In 2017, according to the memo, 134 babies were born to county residents. In 2018, Aspen Valley Hospital reported 198 births to residents of Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. The number of local home births was not provided in the memo.
“With licensed child care space for only 22 percent of babies born to Pitkin County residents, new parents must get creative with care for their new babies, drop out of the workforce, accept less than optimal care or leave the community,” the memo states.
Sundeen stressed after the meeting that the discussion was exploratory and the county will continue to seek information from the city about ways to help. She pointed out that while pulling together financial resources to hire more child care professionals and acquire more classroom space is one way to tackle the problem, that route might be premature, given the dearth of professionals in the field that are available for hire.
“The commissioners are passionate about early childhood education and they want to help in a way that they can,” Sundeen said, “knowing that it’s a city focus and a city function and they have their own set of goals.”
During the work session, commissioners asked Ritter and Aspen City Manager Sara Ott about immediate needs. Ott said the city wants to hire an additional resource teacher, a highly qualified substitute teacher who would work in local classrooms as needed. Ritter said Kids First, a taxpayer-subsidized program that provides financial aid to families and child care providers, is working to find more classrooms to assist providers.
“County staff is going to work with the city to find out what exactly they need so we can go back to commissioners with a plan for that,” Sundeen said. “We kind of need to see more from the city, but my sense of their needs is that it’s about building capacity and having extra people so that when someone is sick or doing training, there can be continuity of operations.”
Other issues include recruiting and housing qualified professionals to serve local child care programs once additional classroom spaces are created, Sundeen said. In addition, there was discussion during the meeting about how the certification requirements necessary to obtain employment in the field are stringent, and so a workforce development plan may be necessary. One avenue could be certification through Colorado Mountain College, which is looking to expand its program offerings at its Aspen campus.
While the county may be called upon to assist the city with funding, there are other topics of concern, such as county and state regulations that limit where child care facilities can be located. Commissioners can help ease local land-use limitations and lobby state legislators to roll back other restrictions, but first they will need a clearer understanding of details from the city, Sundeen said.
“Because this has not been an area that commissioners have already stepped into,” Sundeen said.
Ritter said there are 14 child care programs in the county. Some low-income families receive a subsidy through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP, state funding (administered by the county) that helps offset the high cost of child care and early childhood education provided by various facilities. The city’s Kids First program assists families with a slightly higher income level, providing subsidies to those who don’t qualify for CCCAP.
Commissioner George Newman said during the meeting that for him, the issue comes down to funding. He suggested that the community might be willing to “reconsider” the city sales tax that funds the Kids First program and replace it with a countywide tax.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury wondered if the county had any affordable-housing stock that could be made available for childcare professionals.
She also said she is starting to become “impatient with the issue” and would like to see the county move more quickly in the child care arena given the number of births in the county and the low number of program slots available for infants.
“There’s a need now,” she said.
On Wednesday, Board of County Commissioners chair Greg Poschman said he looks forward to the continuing discussion. He credited Kury, who has an infant son, with spurring commissioners into action.
“She’s a young mom with two children, and she’s inspired us,” he said. “She’s been driving the point home that this is important.”
Poschman said the lack of child care capacity has reached a crisis level in Pitkin County.
“It’s something that needs our focus,” he said.
Other local officials have been speaking about the prospect of tying future affordable-housing developments to on-site child care facilities, he pointed out.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say there’s a consensus that this is how [housing development] should be addressed,” he said. “Before anybody comes up and says ‘this is impractical,’ I want to hear ideas.”