little red schoolhouse

 The Little Red Schoolhouse child care facility in Snowmass.

The need for more early child care programs and quality educators to carry out their day-to-day operations was obvious during a Snowmass Village Town Council work session Monday.

Snowmass Village Assistant Town Manager Travis Elliot prefaced Monday’s discussion with daunting statistics about the critical need for early child care education — not only in Snowmass Village, but throughout Pitkin County.

According to Elliot, child care costs Pitkin County families, on average, $18,500 each year, per child. 

“There are just 400 licensed spaces for children ages birth to age five, and there are only 32 infant spaces,” Elliot said. “And 141 babies were born just in 2019 to parents that are residing here in Pitkin County.”

The discussion came just one day before Aspen City Council issued a proclamation naming May 2021 the “month of the young child.” Councilors through their proclamation acknowledged that “the average wage for child care providers, who are skilled and valuable front-line professionals who have risked their health to provide education and care during a global pandemic, averages $21 an hour, or $44,700 annual gross income in Pitkin County” while the average annual cost of child care exceeds the cost of annual college tuition. 

For its part, the Snowmass Village Town Council on Feb. 16 adopted its own goal-setting statement that included numerous initiatives like updating and improving public spaces and facilities. Specifically, the council’s goal-setting statement proposed exploring an “enhanced use of the Little Red Schoolhouse to provide an improved and enlarged child care/early learning facility.”

According to a town council memo, since 1989 the town has leased the Little Red Schoolhouse entity — its main facility space — for $1 per year to support its coveted child care education services. 

The Little Red Schoolhouse entity owns a second facility on the property but still only has space for a maximum of 30 students. While the Little Red Schoolhouse offers preschool and toddler education, it simply does not have the capacity or resources to offer infant care.

“My kids went there, and I just know what a valuable resource it is not having to run … into Aspen to drop your kids off to come back to go to work,” Mayor Bill Madsen said. “That in and of itself is … really important for Snowmass Village. So, how we get there is, I think, what our next step is.” 

The demand for quality, affordable child care — not only in Snowmass Village and Pitkin County but throughout the entire Roaring Fork Valley — was evident during Monday’s work session, as was the critical need for more early child care educators. 

“That particular age is so vulnerable,” Councilor Tom Goode said during Monday’s work session. “Having a good-quality teacher, not just a warm body there, is really important.”

Shirley Ritter, director of Kids First for the city of Aspen, explained how, like many industries in the Roaring Fork Valley, early child care programs often can’t afford to pay their employees livable wages or offer benefits that entice them to stay.

“They have to live here, and if you haven’t noticed, nurses and even public school teachers make a whole lot more than early childhood teachers,” Ritter said to councilors Monday.

Councilor Alyssa Shenk also pointed out how exhausting being an early childhood teacher must be, especially when some employees commute from as far away as Rifle to go to work in programs in Snowmass Village.

“It’s a matter of being able to staff these places as well. I know how challenging it is. I know the turnover is high … it’s a big concern,” Shenk said. “They’re cute kids, but there’s a lot of burnout too — it’s exhausting.”

According to Town Manager Clint Kinney, Snowmass will seek a third-party consultant to conduct an assessment about ways to possibly expand the Little Red Schoolhouse to provide more early child care opportunities.

“There will be an architectural component. There will be a business model component,” Kinney said of the forthcoming assessment. “All of that kind of stuff to figure out how we can make an expansion happen.”

Matthew Bennett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at: matthew@aspendailynews.com