Work Here, Live Here: Costs, access to child care only compound workforce issues

It’s estimated that 1,500 children in Eagle County are without access to the child care that would allow a parent to work

Editor’s note: This is Part 3 in a weekly series that takes a hard look at the challenges locals face when it comes to making it in the mountains.

It’s not easy to raise a family in the valley. Still, there are 4,300 children under the age of 5 in Eagle County and only 42 licensed child care centers and homes, according to county data.

Maggie Swonger is the director of operations at the Children’s Garden of Learning, a child care center located in the heart of Vail.

The Children’s Garden of Learning serves 57 preschoolers and toddlers Monday through Friday with a team of 17 teachers.

At the Children’s Garden, the kids spend almost all day outside.

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“We just had a class leave to walk the Fireweed Trail,” Swonger said Tuesday. “Our teachers wear a lot of different hats. You’re a teacher, you’re nurse, you’re a comedian, you’re a mountain guide.”

When she’s not running the Children’s Garden of Learning, Maggie Swonger is running around with her two daughters. She has spent the last 16 years in Eagle County and plans to raise her daughters here too.
Maggie Swonger/Special to the Daily

The population of the Children’s Garden is a reflection of the town. “The town of Vail sets the priority in which we enroll families,” Swonger said. Those who live and work in Eagle County year-round are at the top of the list.

“95% of families we serve have both parents working full-time. We have families that live in Middle Creek, and we have families that live on Lake Creek,” Swonger said. “10% of the families are on financial aid.”

Leading and teaching a gaggle of girls and boys is hard. “When you work with toddlers and preschoolers, it’s a very high demand, high burnout job,” Swonger said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay the teachers what they’re worth, unfortunately.”

All of the teachers at the Children’s Garden still live in Eagle County, “but are probably not as comfortable as they should be,” Swonger said.

According to Swonger, fair compensation doesn’t seem feasible unless regular subsidies offset the tuition. Raising tuition to match operation costs is also an option, but the tuition fees of most child care centers are already unaffordable to most parents.

Children’s Garden of Learning brings sandboxes to a whole new level with dinosaur digging.
Maggie Swonger/Special to the Daily

“We charge not even to meet the actual costs,” Swonger said. “I think if you talked to every child care program, they would tell you that the tution revenue is only 90-95% of their budget and the rest they have to fundraise.”

An ongoing problem

Finding affordable, dependale child care is not a new issue in Eagle County. In the Vail Valley Partnership’s latest workforce study, 57% of local businesses indicated that child care was a “major problem” or “could be better.”

According to Eagle County’s Impact on Early Childhood Education report, the cost of child care is 53% higher than the median across Colorado. Still, most local child care centers run at capacity and operate with a waitlist.

Chris Romer, CEO and president of the Vail Valley Partnership, elaborated on the deep-seated hardships of child care in the valley, stating, “It is estimated that 1,500 children are without access to the child care that would allow a parent to work. As a result, employers are ultimately paying a price for this child care supply and demand issue.”

Romer said the solution is in the business community.

“Businesses must recognize and assist with child care’s under-developed business model as it affects working families and child care providers because child care is too expensive for many families,” he said.

Another solution lies in subsides. Samantha Markovitz is the early childhood systems coordinator for the Department of Human Services in Eagle County. “I manage our Eagle County Early Childhood Grant, which is a $1.5 million dollar fund dedicated to supporting our early childhood programs and workforce, and I am the supervisor for Colorado Child Care Assistance Program,” Markovitz said.

On April 7 of this year, Eagle County stepped in again to subsidize child care. The county announced a grant funding process for licensed child care centers and home providers. The main goals of the grant are higher wages for child care professionals, the health and safety of the children, and just staying open.

“So far, Eagle County has committed to giving over a million dollars to our licensed child care providers in 2021. As I work directly with the early childhood providers, I see the impact every day that these dollars have on their staff, families, and children,” Markovitz said.

Funding issues for child care isn’t exclusive to the county. In 2019, House Bill 19-1262 passed, which provides funding for full-day kindergarten.

“We are also waiting to see what specifically the state will be doing in the coming months as more than $500 million of funding has been allocated to support early childhood,” said Justin Patrick, the county’s communications manager.

Still, child care is in high demand and is already at capacity. It is unaffordable to the community, while still not meeting costs to properly run.

Despite the hardships that come with child care, and the high costs of Eagle County in general, people come and people stay.

“I think people stay here for the community and the lifestyle,” Swonger said. “We have the ability to do things that a lot of people don’t get to do. Our weekend is someone else’s vacation.”

While exploring the mountains with the children, Swonger says she still learns new things.

“If you’re curious where that water is leading, follow it,” she said. “If you want to know what kind of flower that is, grab a book. There are endless possibilities and curiosity drives how you learn.”

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