Affordability and availability of child care is a big issue for some Chilkat Valley residents. Haines Economic Development Corporation (HEDC) has been studying the problem and its board is expected to take up the subject Thursday, Jan. 30.

“There is not enough child care to meet the needs of the community,” states a HEDC report compiled by the Southeast Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children (SEAAEYC). 

The report, titled “Early Education by the Numbers,” was released on HEDC’s website on Wednesday, Jan. 22. It follows up on the results of an informal survey the corporation put out last October that indicated child care availability was a pressing concern for Haines residents.

“If we’re looking at growing the community, child care is important to most families,” Margaret Friedenauer, HEDC’s executive director said. “I’ve heard from families who are not able to work as much as they would like because they can’t afford or access child care.”

Mother of two Lisa Shove found herself in this position after the birth of her second child a year and a half ago. For her older son, she was able to find full-time, affordable child care without too much hassle, she said. But for her second son, no one had space. She managed to cobble together a schedule of friends and caregivers for a time, spending her lunch breaks moving her baby from one place to the next.

“It was stressful for both of us,” she said. “He was 10 months old when I ended up quitting my job… If I could have found someone full-time, I would have just stayed at work.”

In 2018, HEDC included supporting new and existing child care facilities as one of its objectives in its “Five-Year Development Plan.” The corporation identified expanding child care options as a way to promote economic development by “attracting families to the community and promoting school enrollment,” Friedenauer said.

Last summer, the corporation received requests from several Haines residents who wanted HEDC to move up the timeline for expanding child care options. 

“The first thing we do in these situations is compile the data,” said Friedenauer. This took the form of last October’s survey followed by SEAAEYC’s more detailed report based on state and census data. The report says that more licensed child care is needed in Haines, especially for infants and toddlers, groups that require a smaller child-to-staff ratio.

At present, Haines has two state-licensed child care providers, Chilkat Valley Preschool with 24 slots available for children ages 3 to 7 and Kids R Fun, owned by Kim Larson, which is licensed for eight children ages 0 to 12. Larson said under state law, only three of the eight children she watches at one time can be under 30 months. In addition to the two state-licensed facilities, Haines also has a Head Start, a free, federally funded program that serves children ages 3 to 5 from low-income families. 

In total, Haines has 52 licensed child care slots for an estimated 128 children under the age of 5.5, according to the HEDC report. Larson estimates that there are four unlicensed child care providers in the community. Under state law, unlicensed facilities cannot serve more than four children at a time. If estimates are accurate, this would mean a maximum of 68 child care slots in Haines at present, not counting friends, relatives, and stay-at-home parents.

“When people say there’s not child care available, it’s not true,” Larson said. When Larson first started her child care facility 22 years ago, there was one other provider in town. Now, for the first time since Larson opened, she has availability in her 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. program.

“When it comes to child care affordability versus availability, for me the issue is about affordability,” working mother Tracey Harmon said. She would like to see more facilities get licensed by the state, making them eligible for programs like child care assistance, which subsidizes the cost of care for low-income families. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services compensates providers on behalf of families according to a rate schedule broken down by community.

In Haines, the rates are $750 a month for full-time infant care, $725 for toddlers, and $670 for preschool-age children. Larson said her prices are “very close” to the monthly rates for Haines. Averaging the monthly numbers for the three age groups, this means parents who do not qualify for the child care assistance program pay roughly $3.67 an hour for child care from Larson. 

Shove, who sent her older son to Larson full-time, said her rates were very affordable, especially compared to the price of paying an individual to watch her kids. When Larson took vacations, Shove estimates she paid $40 or $50 a day, $250 a week, for unlicensed child care. Shove said it was easier for her to afford care as a member of a two-income household. “As a single parent, it would be almost impossible,” she said.

In addition to child care assistance, Larson’s license has allowed her to apply for and receive money from the federal government for childrens’ meals and grants to help purchase school supplies, new car seats, and raingear.

Larson said she thinks more providers in the community should become licensed. “Even though I dread all the paperwork, (as a licensed provider) I can take kids who are lower income and the state helps pay.” Licensed providers give parents assurance that their kids are in good hands, she said. The process requires a background check, CPR and first aid training, insurance, two site visits a year, and “endless forms,” she said.

Harmon helped the Chilkat Valley Preschool get licensed and cites the difficult, time-consuming nature of the process as one of the main reasons facilities remain unlicensed. She said she thinks a way HEDC could help address what she views as a lack of affordable child care is by partnering with facilities and coaching them through the licensing process.

Larson said she doesn’t see a role for local government in expanding Haines’ child care industry. As someone who’s had to renew her license every two years for the past 22, she said the rigor can be challenging, but she’s found a way to make it work.

Candice Mustard-Scott, who runs Montessori Moments, one of the four unlicensed child care facilities Larson named, said she sees no reason to apply for a license until she is ready to grow her program. She started Montessori Moments in Virginia after the birth of her youngest child, Ella. At the time, she struggled to find a place to send Ella, so she started her own program, she said. When she moved to Haines four years ago, she kept the program going. People rise to the occasion when there’s a need for child care in a community, she said.

For Mustard-Scott, an important part of addressing the affordability of child care is changing people’s expectations. “Development from 0 to 6 is critical, and it’s important to have caring people in (kids’) lives so they can grow up with a love of learning,” she said. To achieve this, “it is important that child care providers receive adequate compensation.” She said she doesn’t see a role for the borough in promoting the availability of child care. “It’s a private decision. It has to be a priority for parents.” When her children were little, she thought about “child care as much as her mortgage,” she said, and this was as a member of a two-income household.

Divided opinions about child care are not unique to Haines. In 2015, the “Economic Impact of Early Care and Learning in Alaska” report compiled by the McDowell Group estimated that the average monthly cost of child care statewide was $402, and closer to $528 for those who did not receive subsidized care either from relatives or through government assistance (since then, the price of child care has risen). While 50% of those surveyed in the 2015 report said finding child care was “easy” or “very easy,” 46% described it as “difficult” or “very difficult.”

In Petersburg, the answer to whether or not the community lacks affordable child care “depends on who you ask,” said Sharlay Mamoe, director of Petersburg Children’s Center. The center is the largest child care provider in the community with a total capacity of 65 children ranging from 6 weeks to 5 years. The center is in the process of raising prices to match the child care assistance program’s compensation rates for Petersburg, which range from $852 per month for full-time infant care to $765 per month for preschoolers. 

Petersburg is roughly one and a half times the size of Haines, yet it has well over twice as many licensed child care slots. In addition to Mamoe’s facility, Petersburg has two other state-licensed facilities, Serendipity Childcare Center and Good Beginnings Preschool, with capacities of 30 and 26 children respectively. Petersburg also has a Head Start program and at least one other unlicensed facility, Mamoe said.

Her center currently has a small waitlist for the younger age groups, Mamoe said. Children 18 months and younger require a child-to-staff ratio of five-to-one, which limits the number of children they can serve. Care for this age group and afterschool care for all ages are the needs she sees in her community. So far, the local government has “let things play out,” said Mamoe.

In Wrangell, local government has not attempted to influence child care availability. The borough is between Haines and Petersburg in size and has only one state-licensed child care provider, Tongass Tykes Child Care, with an eight-kid capacity. Sandra Churchill, head teacher at the local Head Start, which serves 20 children ages 3 to 5, estimates there may be one other child care provider in Wrangell who is unlicensed, bring the total slots for the community to 32.

In the past year, the Wrangell community lost two child care facilities, but so far, Churchill said, she hasn’t heard complaints about a lack of availability or seen a spike in demand for her services. She said it’s likely that families are caring for kids at home. 

“It’s interesting to look at what other communities have done (in similar situations),” Friedenauer said. “Juneau decided to address their child care issue from a governmental standpoint.”

In 2018, the City and Borough of Juneau formed a child care committee of assembly and school board members with the goal of addressing the role of the municipality in child care. In 2019, the committee offered a set of recommendations including the creation of a loan program for use in new and existing child care businesses.

“Juneau has taken a very active step, but that doesn’t mean we need to do the same things they’re doing,” Friedenauer said. “Anecdotally, I’ve heard people don’t want the borough to get involved in child care.” However, “there’s only so much you can do without talking about investments,” she said.

The topic of child care raises questions about the role of government in the lives of citizens and the government’s relationship to private industry, borough manager Debra Schnabel said. “We don’t want to overstep. We take our cues from the public.”

With the report from SEAAEYC complete, Friedenauer will present the findings to the HEDC board on Thursday. She said the board will determine what steps, if any, it wishes to take. A future step could involve assembling a list of recommendations for addressing the issue, but HEDC is not the only entity that could put the information in the report to use, she said.

“We don’t own the data,” Friedenauer said. “Any person in the community could use this data-individuals, other organizations, private companies.” For example, someone could decide to start their own child care business based on the report’s findings. In addition to publishing the report on the HEDC website, Friedenauer will also publish it on social media and send copies to the borough and school board.

At present, child care in Alaska communities is largely governed at the state level through regulation by the governor’s administration. Judie Klemmetson, child care licensing specialist for Southeast communities, said there have been discussions about changing state licensing requirements so that individuals caring for more than two children would be required to have a license. This would force unlicensed businesses like Montessori Moments to either reduce class sizes or become licensed. However, Klemmetson could not comment on the likelihood of this change or say whether the administration had discussed any other changes that would impact child care availability.

*This story has been updated for accuracy.