Southeast Iowa counties search for answers to child care shortage

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Lexi Redlinger holds her 1-year-old cousin Lucy Redlinger at the United Presbyterian Home Daycare in Washington. Washington County has a large number of day care providers compared to surrounding towns. According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, Washington County has 15 DHS licensed centers/preschools, compared to six in both Henry County and Jefferson County.
Union photo by Andy Hallman Lexi Redlinger holds her 1-year-old cousin Lucy Redlinger at the United Presbyterian Home Daycare in Washington. Washington County has a large number of day care providers compared to surrounding towns. According to the Iowa Department of Human Services, Washington County has 15 DHS licensed centers/preschools, compared to six in both Henry County and Jefferson County.

Childcare has become a concern for counties in southeast Iowa.

Some of them have already formed committees specifically to address this issue, and others are thinking of following suit. For instance, residents in Jefferson County formed a 22-person committee to study the matter, and from that a nonprofit corporation was born: Jefferson County Kids, Inc.

In November, Fairfield Economic Development Association and Early Childhood Iowa for Iowa/Jefferson/Keokuk Counties announced that they were planning to build a new child care center in Fairfield, and that it would be owned and operated by Jefferson County Kids, Inc. The new center would be 14,000 square feet and would be licensed to serve 150-200 children.

Washington County and Henry County are watching closely the developments in Jefferson County. Neither of those two counties have a child care committee yet, but they are talking to parents and businesses to see what changes, if any, are needed for child care in their area.

Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance Executive Vice President Kristi Ray said Mt. Pleasant is suffering from a “huge shortage” of child care spaces. She’s heard about the problem ever since she became the chamber’s executive vice president four years ago. Ray said Mt. Pleasant used to have a privately run child care center called Owl’s Nest. Iowa Wesleyan University had one, too.

“Unfortunately, it became financially unfeasible to run those centers,” Ray said.

When those centers closed, that left Mt. Pleasant without a single child care center. But by that time, a child care center had just sprung up next door. New London Community Child Care opened in 2005, starting out in the basement of a church while its building was being constructed adjacent to Clark Elementary School. Two years later, the child care center moved into its new building.

Michelle Wilka is the director of New London Community Child Care. She began taking her own kids to the center shortly after it opened, then began working for it 11 years ago, and became its director three months ago. She said the child care center receives children from all over the area: Mt. Pleasant, Burlington, Fairfield, Salem, Winfield, Wayland and other towns.

New London Child Care Center is licensed to serve 126 kids at a time, though more children than that are enrolled because some of the kids come just one day a week or just for a few hours during the day. Wilka said the center usually has 50-60 kids during the school day, and that number rises to about 70 for a few hours after school.

Wilka said there is no waiting list to speak of because the child care center is not at capacity. Parents need to allow for two weeks from the time they wish to enroll in order for the center to process the paperwork.

Ray said it’s been great to see New London Child Care Center flourish since it opened. At the same time, it has not been enough to meet the demand for child care that remains in Mt. Pleasant.

“We’ve let it play out, hoping there would be enough in-home day care to fill our needs, but about two years ago, we realized that’s not the case,” Ray said. “We need a community day care center again in Mt. Pleasant.”

Ray has been in close contact with Tasha Beghtol of Early Childhood Iowa. Beghtol oversees Henry, Washington, Des Moines and Louisa counties. In November, Ray and Beghtol spoke about the issue of child care and came to the conclusion that the shortage was a genuine crisis. A couple of individuals have expressed an interest in building their own privately run child care centers in Mt. Pleasant. Ray is hopeful they will pan out, though they are “not advancing as quickly as we need them to.”

Ray is helping to organize a meeting in December to discuss child care. She plans to have representatives from Early Childhood Iowa, Iowa Wesleyan University, business owners and many others. She said the meeting will be helpful in determining just how large the unmet need for child care is.

“We’ve heard from our [human resource] providers that people can’t take a job because we don’t have child care, or they have to miss work because there’s no child care,” Ray said.

There are a few preschools in Mt. Pleasant such as the one affiliated with Van Allen Elementary School and Son Shine Academy. Ray said the city has preschool-aged child care covered pretty well.

“We’re doing better with the 3-5-year-olds,” she said. “It the kids 1-year-old or younger that we’re struggling to find spots for.”

Beghtol said the whole state is suffering from a child care shortage. She mentioned that the state changed the regulations on child care a few years ago, and a number of providers — especially those who were serving just a few kids like their friends and neighbors — dropped out.

She said Washington and Henry counties are an interesting contrast, because on one hand, they’re so similar, with nearly identical populations. And yet, Washington County has far more child care services. Washington County has six child care centers, three in the city of Washington alone.

“Of our four counties, it is glaringly obvious that Henry County lacks child care,” Beghtol said. “What Fairfield did with its feasibility study was great, because those studies help you figure out what you need. But those studies cost money.”

Beghtol said the biggest hurdle facing child care providers is staffing. In many cases, child care providers are operating below their facility’s capacity not because there aren’t enough kids to fill the spots, but because there aren’t enough staff to care for them. Beghtol said there is a program called Child Care WAGE$ IOWA that provides bonuses to child care and early education providers. Stipends are determined by an employee’s education and commitment to the same child care program.

Shalon Hoyle is the day care director at the Washington YMCA, and she agreed with Beghtol that wages are one of the biggest problems in the industry.

“Part of the problem in getting high quality staff is that wages are low,” she said. “People can’t afford to live on the wages.”

To work at a day care like the Y, staff must possess a high school diploma and pass a background check. She said people can receive postsecondary instruction in child care, such as getting an associate degree in early childhood education, but most of those people go on to work in schools as teachers or teacher associates.

“It’s hard to pay for an associate degree working at a child care center,” Hoyle lamented. “I think Washington needs more in-home providers and child care centers, but you can’t add either of those if you don’t pay the staff a living wage.”

Michelle Redlinger, director of Washington Chamber of Commerce, said Washington is in a better spot than most surrounding communities in terms of day care availability. Nevertheless, the chamber and Washington Economic Development Group (WEDG) are planning a comprehensive meeting in January to discuss the matter to see what Washington truly needs.

WEDG director David Collins said he has been intimately involved with child care dating back to his prior job in Park Rapids, in northern Minnesota. He said the shortage of child care spots was a big concern there, and he found the same thing in talking to business owners in southeast Iowa.

“The lack of quality child care keeps people out of the workforce, and the lack of infant care affects attendance, so this issue is all part of economic development,” he said.

Collins said child care was an even bigger problem in Minnesota because that state has more child care regulations than Iowa.

“It’s rather easy to start a home-based day care center in Iowa compared to Minnesota,” he said.

Collins said an organization called Group First Children’s Finance has offered to perform surveys and run focus groups to determine the extent of Washington’s child care need. That will be discussed at the meeting planned for January.