Le Mars faces a dire situation
LE MARS — Being a parent is no easy task. Concerns consume them daily from raising their children with the right values, to keeping them safe and healthy, to nurturing them to become a valuable citizen in their community. And when their children aren’t with them they want to make sure they are being adequately cared for by people who carry the same beliefs they do.
Now that concern of finding adequate child care in the Le Mars community, has become one at the forefront of parents’ minds more than ever before.
According to a recent survey completed by the Le Mars Business Initiative Corporation (LBIC), Le Mars is facing a crossroads of providing an adequate number of affordable, safe and reliable daycare providers to meet the demands facing the community of over 10,000 residents.
In a news release issued by the Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce, Le Mars is currently showing a shortage of more than 400 registered child care spaces.
“The issue is space, staffing and affordability,” said Rich Ziettlow, interim Le Mars Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director. “Our first priority is to fill open spots in existing providers while also looking to add more to meet the need, which is greater than the open spots today.”
The survey, powered by First Children’s Finance, surveyed area employers, parents and child care providers to determine the scope of need for registered child care in the community, Ziettlow explained.
What the results indicated were developed into four goals: 1) increase the supply of resulted child care spaces in Le Mars by adding 210 new spaces by 2027; 2) support efforts of child care businesses to be sustainable by providing access to business resources; 3) develop and share resources that will allow Le Mars families to find and access quality child care; and 4) engage employers and community partners in developing and carrying out child care solutions.
“It is not unique in Le Mars, all communities across Iowa are experiencing the same shortage of space, staffing issues and affordability concerns,” Ziettlow noted. “Our governor (Kim Reynolds) authorized a statewide child care study this past year resulting in new state programs and funding opportunities to help Iowa communities and businesses address child care concert at the local level. We hop to utilize these state programs to help address our challenges.”
Currently Le Mars has seven licensed centers/preschools and six registered home providers, with approximately 460 children in those facilities.
Two of those facilities — Guardian Angel Preschool and Daycare and Building Blocks — shared differing experiences at their facilities regarding the child care shortage.
Guardian Angel Director Lisa Freking said her center has been a part of the Le Mars community for 25 years and currently has a waiting list of 25 families.
“We consistently run anywhere from 25-30 families on our wait list at all times,” Freking said, of her facility that accepts children ranging in age from 18 months to 12 years old.
“I was actively involved with the meetings. At this time time we don’t plan to expand so we will continue to do what we’ve done for the past 25 years and service the families as we can and fill as many part-time spots as we can,” she said.
Despite seeing a rough patch from August of 2021 to January of 2022 with staff shortages, Freking said currently her site is in good shape with 25 employees.
At Building Blocks, Dan Hiserote, president, shared what they are seeing is the complete opposite of that at Guardian Angel.
“We’re not even half full. Our facility has been here for seven years now and it has never been full and we’ve never ran even close to being full. We have room for 120 more kids,” Hiserote said of the center which accepts children from six weeks old to 12 years of age.
“If you hear of or are a part of discussions where they talk about we need 400 more spaces I would challenge that group to say if that’s really needed then why are’t the centers currently out there overflowing? They should be to the brim with kids,” he said.
For Hiserote the issue doesn’t start with a shortage, instead it begins with affordability, and he said that is where the focus should be.
“The issues that child care and employees are facing regarding child care are not so much related to space availability, it is more affordability and also ramping up our staff to handle those kids coming in. There’s been a lot of discussion around child care because that’s a very easy element to identify as a hinderance for people working. But it’s not that they can’t find child care, it’s that the child care is expensive and unaffordable.
“The latest raises and inflation have really exacerbated that a lot. With the ratios that we have to keep in Iowa, which are reasonable, you have to have one adult to four infants, by the time you figure a 60 hour coverage period a week with adult wages and adult taxes and benefits, it gets to be very expensive,” he explained of the rates charged by child care facilities such as his.
At Building Blocks, Hiserote said it cost $220-$230 per week for an infant, with costs going down from there as the child gets older.
“It’s very expensive for families especially if they have multiple children they’re trying to cover. So many times if workers mention child care needs it’s not that they can’t find the spaces, it’s that they can’t afford the space available,” he said. “I don’t believe the discussion is capacity, I don’t believe this discussion is we need more child care, the discussion should be based on affordability and more government assistance and grants to help parents versus more assistance to build more facilities.”
Hiserote said members of his staff from the Le Mars site were involved in the initial discussions, however not so much recently.
“Some of the recent meetings where they’ve been coming up with their plans for the future, my staff was told they were closed sessions and were for board members only and that they would get back to us in the future at some point,” he shared.
For Hiserote, his concern lies with local businesses, such as Wells Enterprises, possibly looking at building their own child care center.
“Unfortunately if area businesses decide to build their own centers it’s going to further harm centers that already exist in two ways. One, we’re going to lose staff and lose kids, and more importantly the government is paying them subsidizing them to build these centers, while centers like ours that have a mortgage to pay every month is just going to create another hard obstacle for us to overcome,” Hiserote stated. “Whenever you compete with free government dollars and you’re a private sector, it’s very difficult to compete.”
It was in May when Gov. Reynolds announced a new Child Care Business Incentive Grant Program to encourage employers to offer child care as a benefit to their employees.
The program, which is two-fold, will provide $25 million to support child care projects across the state with $20 million utilized to support local infrastructure investments to build or expand child care capacity, and $5 million to support arrangements between employers and child care facilities to expand and reserve child care slots.
Potential projects could include the creation and development of an on-site child care center or a partnership with an existing child care center to create new child care slots paid for by a local employer.
According to Hiserote, the partnership between child care centers and employers to reserve spots is the option communities, like Le Mars, should pursue first before making plans to construct new on-site care centers.
“It’s the most reasonable method and I think should be the one fully utilized and exhausted before pursuing the second option,” he stated. “In trying to help child care in Le Mars, if businesses build centers they’re probably going to go backwards and harm us and lose spots because I there’s many of us that can’t survive.
“Some areas around Iowa there are counties that are child care deserts if you will where you may have a whole city with very small child care availability or what’s there is totally full. Those areas of course are a little different and do need some assistance in building more facilities. But in counties where you have amply supply already available, I just don’t understand the logic of why there would be any discussion of adding more spaces on or building more buildings when you already have hundreds of slots available between all the providers that are currently here,” Hiserote continued.
According to Gov. Reynold’s website, Iowa is a national leader in the share of households with all parking working, and 23 percent of Iowans living in a “child care desert.” The state has also lost 33 percent of its child care businesses over the past five years and it’s estimated the shortage has cost the state’s economy roughly $935 million annually in lost tax revenue, worker absences, and employee turnover.
Building Blocks in Le Mars is currently licensed to serve 217 children and as of press time are operating at 85 youth.
“We would love to fill the place and honestly if Wells or another large company looking at creating a child care or would like to I would love to visit with them because we have never been full in Le Mars. If they feel they’re going to help pay for their employees child care I would love to talk to any business in Le Mars or consortium of businesses,” Hiserote said inviting all large companies to the discussion table.
Hiserote said he is also open to discussing extending the center’s hours to meet the child care demands of employees working the second or third shifts.
“We’re more than willing to work on that especially if they’re (local businesses) are willing to step up and say ‘yes, we’ll take 24 slots during this time,’” Hiserote added.
The survey which was conducted from August to November of 2021 and followed by four planning session in February and March of 2022.
Ziettlow said the strategic plan involves several tasks including: creating opportunities for licensed centers and registered home providers to fill any open spaces and to increase the number of spaces they offer; recruiting new registered home providers; exploring options for adding new licensed centers once existing centers are filled; providing a local connection to child care specific business and financial resources and supports; finding opportunities for local employers to partner with and mentor child care business owners and operators; exploring local options for offering the required training and work experience needed for child care staff to become Child Development Associate credentialed; exploring establishing a community-based child care tuition scholarship fund; creating an online source for parents, providers and employers to find child care resources and opportunities; and providing resources and information about child care related employee benefits to local employers.
The LBIC approved a Steering Committee to manage the five-year plan with Ziettlow serving as the chairperson. Other members are representatives from American Bank, the City of Le Mars, Floyd Valley Healthcare, Kemps, Le Mars Community Schools, Little Rascals Child Care, a registered home provider and Wells Enterprises.
The survey was funded utilizing CARES Act grant funds obtained through the Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Commission (SIMPCO) and a Le Mars Area Betterment Foundation grant.