WORTHINGTON — If the current shortage of daycare in Worthington is going to be alleviated, it’s going to take an investment from local businesses and other entities to get it done.
That was the consensus that took shape during an approximately 90-minute Monday afternoon meeting between a handful of community leaders and a pair of state legislators. The meeting, hosted in the JBS conference room, featured input from individuals in the government, business and education sectors, as well as from District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake).
Operation costs for daycares were the primary focus for much of the discussion. Weber noted that the number of licensed daycare providers in Rock County has plummeted from around 70 to 80 to 40, and said he believes there are individuals who want the government to remedy the problem on its own.
“I don’t think most units of government want that responsibility,” Weber said. “That’s a philosophical difference and the battle that we are fighting.”
Karen DeBoer, a regional coordinator of ChildCare Aware and an employee of the Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council, said the number of daycare providers in Nobles County has been “starting to rebound,” but is still in need of a firmer support system. She indicated that the state spends $75 million each year on 3- and 4-year olds for early childhood education, “when we have so many 0- to 4-year-olds that need a place to be.”
Child care programs need money to operate, DeBoer added, “but there’s a gap between what a family can afford to pay and what the provider needs to be able to stay in business. Child care is a community service … and everyone wants someone else to pay for it. This is the same conversation they were having in 1989; nobody wants to foot the bill.”
Independent School District 518 John Landgaard told meeting attendees that he’s lost teachers due to a lack of daycare in the community. JBS Director of Human Resources Len Bakken explained that his company has engaged with “a lot of churches” about creating a child care center and “there’s a lot of interest,” but multiple issues complicate matters.
That’s when DeBoer remarked that if businesses in communities alongside local governments, progress on expanding available daycare could be made. She cited the community of Lynd, where the company D&G Excavating rehabilitated a former restaurant building there and opened Li’l Diggers, a child care facility.
Subsidized child care is available as a benefit to D&G Excavating’s employees, with some of L’il Diggers’ 12 licensed spots also open to the community as well. L’il Diggers is licensed as a special family child care, a category that includes child care run by a nonprofit, employer or church.
Also mentioned by DeBoer during the meeting was licensure of the community room of Edgerton’s library for child care, as well as the creation of a child care center by a business in Harmony.
“That was their investment into their community,” DeBoer said. “It helped their business, and it helped their town.”
JBS General Manager Brad Hellinga said his company wants to help fill a void, but doesn’t want to get into management of a daycare facility.
“I think JBS would be very interested in subsidizing something, but it’s not our thing,” Hellinga said.
Robinson then suggested the creation of a pilot program that could be underwritten by several local businesses, with a possible home being the former Head Start space on 11th Street or a church. In the case of the church, the underwriting organizations could pay to rehab an open space and pay the church rent, he said.
Hamilton inquired as to what his role could be in helping Worthington add to its child care offerings.
“If you’re looking for grants or forgivable loans, that’s potentially something a legislator could do, but that can’t be done overnight,“ he said.
DeBoer suggested that Hamilton work to increase funding for the state’s REETAIN program, which rewards child care professionals who have demonstrated a commitment to the field by continuing their education and professional development.
Robinson noted that the next logical step would be for a group of people to commit to a private plan, with a timeline of two or three years likely needed to execute it.
“As much as I’d like to rely on the state … if you’re going to wait for the state or legislator,” Robinson began.
“Another year will go by,” DeBoer chimed in.