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Little space, high costs plague Midvalley families searching for child care

Marci Krivonen

In the Midvalley, it’s not uncommon for parents to add their child’s name to a waitlist at a childcare center long before the baby’s born. Michelle Oger directs Blue Lake Preschool.

“Several moms calls us once they find out that they’re expecting, to get on the waitlist even before they tell their spouse or extended family. They ask that we keep it a secret until they announce it to everybody else.” 

She says child care is out of reach for many families because of a lack of space and the cost. As Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports, now that the Valley’s economy is recovering, the demand for daycare is outpacing supply.

Three years ago El Jebel resident Jennifer Sauer was on the tail-end of her maternity leave and still didn’t know know where her new baby would go once she returned to work.

"I had no idea until the week prior to going back to work whether or not we were going to be able to get her in to child care. I had to go back to work to make the mortgage, so, what are you going to do, right?"

A space became available, partly because the economy collapsed and parents who had lost jobs pulled their children out of daycare. Now people are working again and Sauer faces a familiar challenge. Her newborn baby Sierra needs a space.

Credit Marci Krivonen
Blue Lake Preschool near El Jebel depends on grants and fundraisers to make ends meet each year. More child care centers are needed, but high property and lease costs are prohibitive.

"Sierra doesn’t really have a spot yet. And we have six weeks to go until I go back to work. So she might just be hanging out in the office for a while. But, we’re keeping our fingers crossed."

Blue Lake Preschool Director Michelle Oger walks around tiny tables, where four and five year old’s are smearing cream cheese on mini bagels.

Reporter: "Is this class in here today at full capacity?"

Oger: "Yes, we’re at 16 kids everyday in this room. Every class is full, everyday!"

The preschool has 140 kids enrolled. There’s just as many on the waitlist. It’s the only center in the Midvalley, other than home child care, that takes infants.

"There’s a lack of childcare throughout the Valley but in the Midvalley especially because there aren’t that many centers."

Most local preschools are non profits and can’t afford the high-priced land and leases in the Valley.

The other problem for families is the cost of care. It can run $2600 a month. Shirley Ritter sits on the Basalt Child Care Coalition, a group working to find solutions to the crisis.

"There’s a big concern that we’ve been hearing about affordability and that always goes to housing and childcare in that Midvalley area."

A study done in low income neighborhoods in Basalt and El Jebel last year shows 170 families want childcare but either can’t afford it, or are unable to find space. The survey, by the Aspen Community Foundation, found parents want full day, low-cost care so they can work.

"Childcare is expensive, so the families would need some funding, whether it was a state or local subsidy to help them pay for that child care."

Credit www.basalt.net
Basalt local govt. is starting a pilot program for families in need of financial help for child care.

Enter Basalt local government. Town Manager Mike Scanlon says the town’s setting aside an initial investment of $37,000 to create a financial aid program.

"It’s a pilot (program) to see how we can supplement and subsidize and help families who are trying to get kids into child care," he says.

The Basalt funding is helpful, says Shirley Ritter, but the larger problem of a lack of space for kids needs to be solved.

"The big idea, but it’s more long term, is that we need additional child care spaces, whether that’s new programs, whether that’s expansion of existing programs. We have to be able to serve infants, toddlers and preschoolers."

Blue Lake Preschool Director Michelle Oger is pursuing one solution. She’s got her eye on a piece of Eagle County property near Crown Mountain, where she’d like to expand child care.

"I would love to see an infant through preschool center go there, as well as an after-school program, where the kids could walk to football or soccer practice. And have a gymnastics program, a computer lab and snack area there as well."

She presented the idea to Eagle County in 2013. She’ll bring it up again to commissioners later this month.

In the meantime, mother Jennifer Sauer will await word from Blue Lake Preschool about whether her infant daughter Sierra will get a space.

"Other than a home care setting or basically counting on someone we don’t know to watch our baby, which isn’t an option for us, we’re counting on her getting into Blue Lake Preschool, where we know she’ll be safe."