Federal aid for child care providers falls short of projections

The final application period for a grant program to assist Montana child care providers remains open until the end of the month. The grants are less than half the amount originally projected by the state health department, which frustrates some recipients.

The state first announced last year that $ 61 million in federal pandemic assistance received by Montana would be dedicated to boosting the state’s child care sector.

Kristi Wilson, owner of Kristi’s Kiddie Korner in Whitehall, heard the news last October during a town hall for child care providers with the state health department.

“People came down from that first town hall and they were like, ‘Holy cow, this is going to change the world.’

Wilson said she understood from that meeting that the health department predicts that the grants will cover about two years of operating costs for each recipient.

However, according to the health department, the agency underestimated the demand for grants and the cost of running a childcare business. It had to switch back and the grants now cover almost half of one year’s expenses.

“The grant funds can be used for rent or mortgage and utilities, for payroll and benefits, for health and safety training,” Patty Butler said.

Butler, head of the health department’s early childhood and family support department, says the grants are intended to stabilize businesses that have experienced volatility since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Butler says the department had hoped to allocate one full year’s operating costs, but it was not feasible.

Butler says the average award size is about $ 71,000 and more than 500 awards have been awarded so far.

Wilson, the childminder at Whitehall, says she is grateful for her grant, which covers about six months of surgery, but the miscalculation was frustrating.

“On behalf of suppliers, it was definitely a big shock, a bit devastating. But then you regroup and you say, “OK, but it’s money, it’s going to help us.” It is still a significant amount of money. “

Wilson said she would have provided her staff with increases under the original proposal, but that is no longer possible with the one-time allowance. Instead, she uses her $ 48,000 grant to offer staff bonuses and to pay for deferred maintenance, such as new sidelines.

More than half of Montana’s children in need of out-of-home care will not get a place at a licensed childcare facilityaccording to a 2020 study by the state Department of Labor.

Brandi Thomas is with Child Care Connections, a nonprofit organization in southwest Montana that provides support to parents and caregivers.

“Child care is not a money maker,” Thomas said. “Everyone thinks kind of it is. They’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you’re asking for this amount for a kid a month, you have to rake it in.’ But if you take out all the expenses and then pay people, it is not a money maker at all. ”

The 2021 legislature consider various childcare-related proposals, but not everyone could progress. Governor Greg Gianforte’s administration said the federal aid money would rather help solve the problem.

Thomas says these grants are important for childcare businesses, but are only a short-term solution.

“The stabilization grants are currently helping, but we need a long-term solution on how we are going to be able to pay childcare workers to stay in the field.”

Thomas said he hopes the state can finally find a way to supplement payment for suppliers and their staff. Childcare staff earn on average approx. $ 13 per houraccording to the mailing list website Indeed.

The state offers two other child care grant programs with grants going to innovative child care projects and scholarships for parents to pay for care.

Wilson said she hopes people see the value of investing in childcare.

“Children must be in high-quality, supportive environments where they have opportunities to learn. And children of all economic status need it, ”Wilson said.

The final application period for the state’s child care stabilization grant program ends July 31 at midnight. There are still about 350 providers who are eligible to apply.

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