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Aspen and Pitkin County share childcare struggles, talk relief for educators, providers

The Yellow Brick Building in Aspen’s West End is home to several childcare programs, including Ajax Cubs and Aspen Mountain Tots. Providers who use the space had their rent waived this year.
Caroline Llanes
Aspen Public Radio
The Yellow Brick Building in Aspen’s West End is home to several childcare programs, including Ajax Cubs and Aspen Mountain Tots. Providers who use the space had their rent waived this year.

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Both the Aspen city council and the Pitkin County commissioners got childcare updates this week. Like much of Colorado, the Roaring Fork Valley is having trouble providing childcare due to rising tuition costs, low pay for teachers, and teachers leaving the field.

Aspen’s city council set a goal last year of increasing childcare capacity. It got an update on its efforts from the Kids First office on Monday. That’s the city of Aspen’s early childhood resource center, which provides everything from grants to providers to financial aid to families.

One program the city implemented to increase was wage enhancement money. Over $100,000 has been distributed to 38 teachers who work at programs in Aspen city limits.

Kids First Co-Director Megan Monaghan gave examples of what teachers were able to do with the funds—including one teacher who put the money toward buying a house.

“Another person said, ‘My son is recovering from back surgery, and the wage enhancement has helped pay for medical bills,’” Monaghan recounted. “Another person said their student loan debt has been a huge burden, and now the wage enhancement is helping them pay that down.”

She said one difference maker for childcare providers is waiving rent for childcare providers who use the Yellow Brick Building for the past year. That frees up funds to support educators in other ways.

“Aspen Mountain Tots is using the money saved to provide health insurance for their staff,” she said. “Ajax Cubs, they’re renting one or two houses for their staff, and using some of the money saved on the rent from the Yellow Brick to pay for the houses, so their staff have their housing subsidized.”

Monaghan said Ajax Cubs is also using some of the rent money they’ve saved on English classes for its providers, many of whom have a home language other than English. It’s also looking at purchasing bikes for the program, so teachers who take the bus in for work can get around town during the day.

As of April 10, there are 460 children under five on a waitlist for providers in Pitkin County. Monaghan said to be able to have capacity for every child who needs daycare, they’d need about double their capacity.

Pitkin County received about $3.4 million in federal COVID relief funds, half of which is going towards childcare.

Of that, $1.5 million is going towards a teacher stipend program, which provides funds directly to teachers through 2025. Full time teachers get $6,000 a year, and part-time staff receive $4,000.

That leaves about $150,000 dollars still available for childcare that needs to be spent by the end of 2026, per federal requirements.

Ashley Perl is Pitkin County’s community resiliency manager.

She says one way to spend that money is for a one-time maintenance grant program for small improvements like paint, carpets, windows, and bear-proof doors.

“The other challenge is that staff come into these spaces that are really hard to run a program in, to work in, because they’re not kept up that well, they’re not maintained, and it’s pulling on budgets,” she said. “So to me, this could really fill a nice little gap.”

Commissioners were supportive of the idea, and also suggested that the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, do energy assessments for childcare programs to help them save on utility bills as well.

Commissioner Greg Poschman said he was concerned about just writing a blank check for childcare programs to do whatever they want.

Perl responded that many of the repairs, while minor, would have immediate positive impacts on staff.

“The place that needs new doors and windows is actually because they’re not bear-proof, and staff are coming in in the morning and having to clean up a huge mess because bears are getting into all sorts of stuff, so they’ve having to get there even earlier than they would normally,” Perl said.

The other $1.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds have been allocated for housing, which staff acknowledge is difficult due to the time it takes to build housing, and what the funds can be spent on.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.