Paying the costs of childcare |

Paying the costs of childcare

Melanie Wong
Childcare centers in Eagle County often must toe the line between keeping care affordable for local families and keeping their doors open.
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Resources for parents

The Early Childhood Network is a nonprofit that serves Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties. The organization helps parents find childcare that meets their needs and provides information and resources for families. Visit their website at or call their offices at 970-928-7111.

This is the second article in a three-part series examining the challenges of finding and affording childcare in the Vail Valley. Part three will look at some of the efforts going on at the regional and state level to alleviate the burden for families and providers.

EAGLE COUNTY — In November of 2013, the Family Learning Center, one of the valley’s largest childcare centers, was ready to close its doors.

Citing financial reasons, the center’s board of directors said that with the economic downturn that began in 2007 costs were too high and funding was lacking. More families needed scholarships, grants and donations dried up, and because some parents lost jobs, enrollment numbers dropped. Faced with losing a large number of already scarce childcare spots, several local groups stepped in to save the center.

Eagle County provided a grant that helped keep the facility open for another year. Other community groups joined in to raise money or partnered with the center to help provide learning programs. These days, the center has 109 children from ages 8 weeks to 6 years enrolled, and is flourishing thanks to various fundraisers, grants and local partnerships.

Unfortunately, theirs is not an uncommon story, as many childcare facilities in Colorado struggle to keep their doors open. Especially in the mountains, where costs are higher, childcare businesses must walk the fine line between keeping care affordable for parents while making enough to stay open and pay workers a decent wage.

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Jonathan Godes, of the Early Childhood Network, said that in larger metro areas such as Denver, childcare providers are able to find more land and space at lower rates. Meanwhile, corporate childcare programs such as KinderCare offer parents more affordable alternatives.

“Even (in the Front Range,) there’s not much of a margin there, but it’s a negative margin here,” he said of the costs. “The problem is statewide, but it’s very acute here. You can’t just raise your rates to reflect the cost of care because then you’d be charging more than $100.”

Staying Affordable for families

With many middle-income families struggling to afford the $600-$1,000 per month that it costs to have a child in daycare, many centers hesitate to charge more. Yet, as Godes pointed out, $50 to $60 per kid doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of the care.

At the Family Learning Center, it costs around $70 per day for a day of infant care, but the center only charges parents $53 per day. Tuition is determined on a sliding scale based on income level, so many families actually pay even less. In addition, the center is an Early Head Start Center, which requires that a lower child-to-teacher ratio. All that means that the center has an annual budget shortfall of $108,000, said program development specialist Carrie Benway.

That shortfall is made up through grants, donations and fundraising events such as the center’s annual golf tournament.

Sheryl Westenfelder, owner of A Lemon and a Pea Children’s Place in Dotsero, charges $39 to $40 per — rates considered on the lower end of the spectrum. As a small homecare business, she said she must run at full capacity, caring for close to the maximum number of kids that her license allows, in order to keep her doors open.

“I don’t really want to charge more, because I’ve been a working mom, too, and I’ve been on the other end. I know how hard it is to make those payments — it’s like a car payment or house payment,” she said.

Then there’s the challenge of finding and keeping qualified workers. Qualifications for childcare workers continue to go up — which is not a bad thing, but is an added challenge, said Lenee Smith, of the Vail Child Development Center.

“The implication of increasing requirements in a rural community where the cost of living is high, and more lucrative jobs needing fewer qualifications are available, is that maintaining or finding a qualified workforce becomes difficult,” she said.

The yearlong waiting list

As any parent with a baby in daycare will tell you, there is a serious shortage of infant care in the Vail Valley. On average, many parents are waiting 9 months to a year to get their infant into daycare, said Godes.

State law limits the worker-to-child ratio for different types of childcare facilities, and babies under the age of 2 require the lowest ratio. At a home daycare such as A Lemon and a Pea, Westenfelder is only allowed to have two infants in her care at a time.

“Right now, there are about 200 spaces available for infant and toddlers under the age of 2 in Eagle County,” said Godes. “And that’s just the number of licensed spots. What happens is a lot of centers just won’t take infants because it limits how many other children you can have in the facility. The exception is nonprofits, because they’re trying to serve the community and know there’s a need for infant care.”

That’s the case for the nonprofit Vail Child Development Center, which has one of the larger infant care programs in the area.

“The cost and liability associated with offering infant childcare might always be a hindrance for many centers,” said Smith, the center’s executive. “We know that infant care is a very valuable service to local families, and therefore, in our determination, the value of meeting the community need outweighs the cost and liability factors associated in doing so.”

Still, the shortage has some providers worried that many parents will have no choice but to turn to unlicensed care.

“The truth is that a lot of kids end up in unlicensed, illegal care, which isn’t always a bad thing, but there are no regulations there, and maybe none of the activities and pre-school learning that’s important for development at that age,” said Godes. “But when you’re a family of limited means, you do what you can to get by.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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