Childcare is wrapped in a sticky web of issues affecting growth and quality of life improvements in Salina and Saline County.
Local leaders agree money is the biggest need to improve daily care for children. They’re relying on collaboration and a deep sense of community to offer higher wages for childcare professionals, and create more slots for children.
Many improvements are needed in the system, said Leigh Ann Montoy, child care coordinator at the Saline County Health Department.
“We are not taking care of our children,” she said.
Services especially for infants and toddlers, are lacking here, Montoy said, and nationally as well.
Cities all over have been dealing with shortages of quality, consistent childcare services for years, said Renee Duxler, president and CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.
It is among the biggest detriments to local growth, she said, but also a “positive challenge,” serving as proof that expansion is taking place.
An intensified attack on the subject has entered a second decade in Salina and Saline County, that has bested some major snags.
“Housing and childcare: I live, eat and breathe conversations around those two issues,” Duxler said. “It takes a village to figure this out.”
In roughly 2017, the “Connecting the Dots Coalition” formed as a subcommittee of PIECE (Partners in Early Childhood Education) led by Child Advocacy and Parenting Services (CAPS) of Salina.
The subcommittee, consisting of Child Care Aware, the City of Salina, Salina Community Economic Development Organization, Martin Luther King Jr. Child Development Center, Salina Family YMCA, Saline Child Care Center, Heartland Early Education Services, and the Chamber, began to attack childcare shortages, she said, including a visit to a new childcare center in Garden City to learn and compare notes.
“This group came back, received grant funding from the Earl Bane Foundation and gained momentum,” Duxler said. “Then COVID hit and all of that came to a screeching halt. When I started at the Chamber in 2020, we were just starting to kind of touch on those conversations again, and since that period, a second wind has come about with the childcare discussion.”
But there has been no clear resolution.
Parents in the workforce simply could not afford to pay higher childcare fees to make wages competitive, said Claire Ludes, executive director of the Salina Area United Way.
Earlier, pay for childcare professionals was augmented by the 1998 multibillion dollar tobacco settlement.
“Then in 2012, those dollars were redirected somewhere else, and that’s when we really started seeing a ripple effect,” she said.
The system nearly went belly-up.
“(Childcare professionals) started leaving because the wages weren’t being supplemented. Staff was paid $8 to $10 an hour. Teachers weren’t being paid an adequate and relevant wage,” Ludes said.
Childcare centers can’t charge clients more, because they can’t afford it, said Mitch Robinson, executive director of the Salina EDO. Slots for childcare centers were reduced, leaving parents with tough choices.
“When a family makes the decision for the husband or wife to stay home, that’s also an issue on the workforce side. We want as many people to work as we can,” he said.
Incentives diminished for folks to continue working in childcare.
“There are people who love to take care of kids, but you still can’t starve to death,” Robinson said. “When you can work in retail or a restaurant for more wages than in childcare, it’s just not financially feasible. That’s what we’ve got to change.”
As childcare issues began to attack the local economy, Salina EDO “pivoted” its priorities, he said, especially when 1 Vision Aviation, Schwan’s and Great Plains Manufacturing embarked on huge expansion projects involving a collective need for thousands more workers.
“Our board prioritized housing and childcare as critical areas of importance for the community for a lot of reasons,” Robinson said. “The city’s made some major strides in getting a (housing) development selected.”
But childcare, he said, “has been up and down. With some (workers) staying home, it has continued to be a real problem. Several groups have come together trying to focus on the issues, and most recently, the United Way has volunteered to take the lead on that.”
Ludes is running the show, but the United Way has hired a childcare director. The nonprofit has applied for a bit more than $2 million Kansas Children’s Cabinet Accelerator Grant on behalf of three childcare centers. It would create 187 childcare slots in Saline County.
The three centers include the Salina Family YMCA McAdams Center, 1323 McAdams Road, near the Schwan’s plant in southwest Salina; St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, 215 S. Chicago, and St. Mary’s Love N. Learn, 232 E. Cloud, part of St. Mary’s School (a division of the Salina Catholic Diocese).
Other centers would be eligible to apply for grant funding through the United Way to supplement the wage gap, Ludes said.
Those are Heartland Early Head Start, 700 Jupiter, which has three rooms closed equating to 60 slots, due to staffing issues, she said, while Martin Luther King Childcare Center, 1215 N. Santa Fe, is fully staffed and open, but has no capacity for expansion at this time. Childcare in the YMCA building is at maximum capacity, Ludes said, and the Y also runs Angels Academy in Church of the Cross United Methodist, 1600 Rush.
Elected county leaders have infused $400,000 from its share of the federal American Rescue Plan Act, to jumpstart childcare improvements.
United Way has applied for that funding, with $75,000 going toward the new childcare director position and $325,000 to be used as matching funds to encourage contributions.
“An agreement its being ironed out and will be presented to the County Commission for consideration once complete,” said Phillip Smith-Hanes, Saline County administrator.
United Way is also accepting private donations. Checks may be sent to 113 N. Seventh, Salina, KS 67401. Include the word “childcare” on the “for” line.
One center not on the list is Salina Childcare Center, 155 N. Oakdale, Suite 100 in the Donna L. Vanier Children’s Center. It closed four rooms before raising pay in 2020.
“When they did that, they were immediately able to hire all staff and reopen rooms,” Ludes said.
In that case raising pay for childcare professionals was a good move.
“It considerably increased their ability to hire,” Robinson said.
Ludes figures the system in Salina and Saline County needs $500,000 a year to grow the wages. It’s essential to provide a service that will fill youngsters’ needs.
“(Childcare centers) struggle to get and keep staff. When you have constant staff changing, that’s hard on kiddos, too,” she said. “If they’re not getting that consistency, it’s hard on brain development as they grow.”
United Way in Salina has started an Early Childhood Care Initiative. The fund currently contains $40,000, Ludes said. Much more is needed to keep staff from bolting for other lines of work.
“We are in the very initial stages of this program,” she said. “In-home childcare is not part of this phase because they are for-profit, but we are exploring how to help those providers in the future.”
An example of coming improvement in Salina/Saline County childcare can be found at Salina Area Technical College, where a childcare curriculum was launched last year, in response to the shortage, said Mike Strand, college spokesman. The class started with two students.
This fall, it’s full, he said, with 14 students enrolled, including adult and high school pupils.
“I was glad it filled up,” Strand said. “I think a lot of people are hearing about the need.”
A single completed semester — 17 hours of college credit — qualifies students to serve infants and toddlers; another semester is for pre-kindergarten children, covering 19 credit hours. One year covers both infants, toddlers and pre-K, with 33 hours credit, he said, and two years of study, with 62 credit hours, completes an associate degree.
“If someone is interested in going for the Associate Degree, they can start on that this fall, even if the Early Childhood classes are full, by taking some of the general education classes,” Strand said, “like English Composition or General Psychology.”
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Women began entering the workforce in the 1970s and ‘80s, Ludes said, and childcare costs have since increased.
“It kind of goes back to centers never being able to charge enough to supplement wages, because families can’t afford it,” Ludes said.
United Way and other leaders have been visiting with major employers to gauge their willingness to contribute money to help improve childcare, and other shortfalls, such as worker shortages.
Linda Salem, principal advisor at Great Plains Manufacturing, 1525 E. North, provided this statement: “Great Plains continues to expand. With that, the need for housing and child care for our employees continues to grow. The City is addressing the housing need. It gives us continued confidence in our decision to expand here when we see this strong focus on child care. Salina is fortunate to have a really strong partnership between the community and business. Great Plains is committed to being part of the solution in our communities to assist with the child care challenge and we have confidence that the other business leaders will also want to participate.”
A number of employers have joined in discussions to develop solutions, according to local leaders.
“We will be meeting with local businesses in Saline County to help supplement wages across all nonprofit childcare centers,” Ludes said, “except for Salina Childcare Association.”
Salina Childcare Center, 155 N. Oakdale, Suite 100, in the Donna L. Vanier Children’s Center, had closed four rooms before raising pay in 2020.
“When they did that, they were immediately able to hire all staff and reopen rooms,” she said.
The drive melds with a June 2022 comment from Lori Blake, executive director of CAPS. She outlined a “three legged stool” with problems hampering childcare services, families, and employers.
“Providers and teachers can’t afford to stay and families can’t afford to pay,” Blake said. “Public investment is the way.”
She’s been engaged with this issue since 2001, and originally chaired Saline County Childcare Workforce Development, a work group of PIECE, which is a public/private community collaboration of more than 20 local organizations. Lindsey Rojas, early education initiatives program director at CAPS, is the facilitator of PIECE.
Among the most recent developments in the process is having an organization that can be a champion for childcare issues in the community, Blake said.
“We were missing a bridge from the practitioners in early education to connect with business and industry and the Salina Area United Way’s new position is doing just that, both fundraising, identifying needs, and writing grants on behalf of the entire community,” she said. “United Way is there for the issue and not for an individual organization.”
There are also less universal changes occurring.
In July 2022, for example, CAPS added childcare as a benefit for employees with children the age of 6, not enrolled in kindergarten, Blake said, and continues to “offer flex schedules to our employees as a family-friendly employment strategy. I am trained and willing to work with local employers on implementing such practices.”
The change proved beneficial.
“We’ve got to lead by example. We need to me walkin’ that talk,” she said. “We have been able to retain employees because of it. I think it’s a great benefit for employers to consider.”
With an influx of workers expected to take jobs available from a number of companies, chief among them the sizable Great Plains/Kubota and Schwan’s expansions in Salina, 1 Vision Aviation, and Vortex Companies, childcare is among the obstacles of filling jobs.
Schwan’s has entered a partnership with the McAdams Center, which is close to the company’s Tony’s Pizza plant.
“They are going to have that for their people, first right fo refusal, with overflow for the general public” Ludes said, “We have been meeting with people left and right, and it has the most momentum it’s ever had. I think we’re going to see some real progress being made before long.”
While the problems are far from solved, Montoy is encouraged.
“Everybody’s working hard. I’m sensing it’s getting better,” she said. “We want the best of the best taking care of our children, because they’re that important. Communities don’t work without safe, available childcare. It’s a critical component to making our society work.”
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