Local leaders seek collaboration, funding to solve early childhood problems in Eagle County
As the need for early childhood care and education becomes an increasingly dire workforce problem, local stakeholders are getting serious about finding tangible solutions.
With workforce shortages impacting every industry and business in Eagle County, local stakeholders are getting serious about solving major areas of concern.
According to Chris Romer, the president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, there are three “foundational community issues that impact our ability to recruit and retain people in our community.” These three issues are child care (more specifically early childhood care), health care and housing.
“The urgency is right now. We’ve talked enough, we’ve studied enough, we have the data to show the need, data showing that people think it’s important, so now it’s time for action,” Romer said. “Action is understanding what we do about it versus needing to talk about it. We’re past the stage of needing to talk about it. Now it’s time to determine what is the most impactful, effective way to get things done.”
While community leaders and local governments are working on solving all three challenges, focus on early childhood has increased in recent weeks.
“I think a lot of that narrative is beginning to shift, not that it’s any less of an important thing in Eagle County now more than ever before, but we’re really seeing this partnership come to life with our municipal partners and even, more excitingly, the private sector,” said Jeff Shroll, the Eagle County manager.
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Looking for permanent funding
On Friday, Aug. 6, Eagle County stakeholders met with stakeholders from neighboring counties to discuss possible solutions, particularly with regard to funding.
Shroll said that the main goal of the meeting was to “share information about what potential funding streams could be out there for early childhood programs and services.”
“We get some money, but the need is not being met with everything that we’re doing now,” Shroll said. “We’re just trying to make sure that we’re looking at other opportunities for more permanent sources of funding.”
He added that the meeting was on opportunity to discuss “the various efforts that are going into place in the central mountain region; it allowed us to talk about what’s going on in Roaring Fork, we know there’s a need in Lake County. We know there’s a need to get together and expand our region and identify opportunities for engagement — I think that’s where we’re at now.”
The meeting included, primarily, discussions around the merits of creating a Special Tax District to help fund early childhood needs. Special districts are a quasi-municipal corporation and political subdivision that can be formed to provide necessary public services that the county or municipality cannot otherwise provide. In 2019, Colorado enacted a law enabling these districts to be formed for investments into early childhood.
Part of the Aug. 6 discussion was the Rocky Mountain Preschool Coalition, a group of business, education and nonprofit leaders from the Roaring Fork Valley. This coalition, which was formed in 2017, was a key advocate of that legislation and is considering forming a special district.
“I think they’re a few weeks, if not a few months ahead of us in planning what their next steps are,” Shroll said, adding that now there is a concerted effort among stakeholders from the Eagle River Valley to push forward with their own coalition.
The Aug. 6 meeting, Romer said, served as an exploratory meeting to learn about the opportunity that creating a special district would provide and how it might apply to the mountain region.
“I think it’s something that’s definitely an opportunity for us, something that’s new and different, that I think the stakeholder committee will want to explore,” Shroll said.
But the work is far from done. It’s just getting started.
“We need to do quite a bit more work and due diligence to understand what would make the most sense,” Romer said.
Convening all stakeholders
The next step is to bring in all parties into the discussion and determine the best way forward.
According to Shroll, already at the table are Eagle County Schools, the Vail Valley Partnership, Vail Health, the Vail Valley Foundation and the municipalities of Vail, Avon and Eagle.
Moving forward, one of the first steps toward a solution — Shroll and Romer agree — needs to be involving more stakeholders including child care providers, the human resource community as well as members of both the public and private sectors. Specifically, Shroll added that this needs to include the county’s larger employers, namely Vail Resorts and Colorado Mountain College.
“This problem is too big for one entity to solve in a silo,” Shroll said. “Everything that we do effects everybody around us, including the problems that we all face and it just seems like there’s so much more synergy in trying to tackle these bigger workforce items as a valley, instead of just one entity by themselves trying to take it on.”
The Vail Valley Foundation has been working on convening local entities to solve not only this problem, but other community issues as well.
According to an email from Tom Boyd, the director of PR and communications at the Vail Valley Foundation, the foundation, through YouthPower365, has been engaged in early childhood education initiatives for decades. With that experience as well as its position in the community, the foundation could have a big role to play in this.
“The organization has always been one that looks to the community and identifies areas of need, and then we convene governments, businesses, and individuals to help make big ideas happen and address community needs, doing things that no one entity can accomplish on their own,” Boyd wrote.
This early childhood dilemma is no different.
“The VVF believes this is clearly a strong need in our community, critical to education, the economy, and quality of life for all of us. To that end, we’re exploring the issue, educating ourselves, and determining how we can act as a ‘convener’ to bring together the various entities that can help solve this problem,” he wrote. “To be clear, the VVF is not going to pursue building and operating new childcare facilities on our own, but there is the opportunity for us to play a role in bringing together the right entities to alleviate this problem, find creative funding solutions, and address some aspect of this incredibly important need.”
Romer sees this type of convening, with the Vail Valley Foundation and other stakeholders, as the necessary way forward.
“We know the need, we don’t need to identify the need, it’s exploring the how and what the public-private model looks like and making sure that those who are already providing these services in the community are in the loop so that we’re leveraging them versus having people work unaligned efforts,” he said.
In the near future, Shroll and Romer both expect there to be regular meetings with all stakeholders to solidify a plan.
Shroll added that the time is ripe right now to get these stakeholders together because everybody is struggling with the issue of early childhood right now.
“It’s time to tackle the issues, it’s time to identify what the best way is to put something together,” Romer said. “I don’t know what the right answer is on that model, but it’s time to identify it.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.