November 27, 2021

County’s limited child care options pose challenges

No child left behind?

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Eric Behnke, left, and his wife Kris Behnke play with their two children Rosie, 5, and Teddy, 2, in front of their Greenbush Street home in Cortland. The couple is one of many in Cortland County struggling to find child care that suits their schedule and budget.

Kris Behnke doesn’t need full-time child care for her two children, but with the announcement of the only part-time child-care facility in Cortland County deciding to no longer do part-time care starting next year, she’s grappling with what to do next.

She’s one of many parents struggling to find suitable child care, according to child care officials.

The need for expanding child care in Cortland County is great, and the need to expand statewide or even nationwide is even greater, said Sue Dale-Hall, the CEO of the Central New York Child Development Council, which serves Cortland and Tompkins counties.

As of the end of 2019, the most recent year for which figures are available, Cortland County is home to six child care centers, 10 Head Start centers and 23 group/family day care-registered or licensed homes, Dale-Hall said.

That may sound like a lot of child care for a county of about 47,600 residents, of which the U.S. Census estimates 5.2% — roughly 2,500 — are children under 5 years old, but it’s not. “At that time (end of 2019), we only had enough care for roughly one-third of all children under the age of 6,” Dale-Hale said.

But trying to find ways to expand child care in the county hasn’t been easy either, particularly because of the complexity of the child care system, from how the programs are funded to the available grants, state or federal aid given to support the facilities.

Struggling to find child care

Behnke and her husband, Eric, moved to Cortland five years ago for work at the Cortland Repertory Theatre.

When their daughter Rosie was 1 year old, Kris Behnke was offered a job as an adjunct professor at SUNY Cortland, teaching theater courses to non-theater major students.

With both of her jobs being part-time, she didn’t need full-time care for Rosie, and later her son, Teddy, who is now 2 years old.

The problem?

Here We Grow is the only day care center in Cortland that provides part-time care, she said.

“For my family, I don’t want full-time care and I don’t need it,” she said. Adding more to her concerns, in December, she received a letter from Here We Grow saying that after December 2020, the day care center would no longer be accepting children for part-time care.

“We’re sort of staring down the barrel now as we have five months to find a new day care center for my son,” she said.

COVID-19 only added more issues as child care centers around the city closed.

Come fall, Kris Behnke may be left with only two options that she doesn’t find desirable: pay for full-time day care for Teddy, which would be expensive, or find a parent who can babysit Teddy, which wouldn’t provide the professional care she and her husband are looking for. Rosie will be entering kindergarten, so Kris Behnke won’t need day care for her.

“Those are my options,” she said. “I don’t have any options other than that.”

Going to cities like Syracuse also wouldn’t be desirable due to long commute times.

“All the major centers, they can only offer full-time because, financially, it doesn’t work for them to offer part-time,” Eric Behnke said.

He said they have considered paying for full-time care and only having Teddy attend part-time but it would be a struggle, financially.

It already costs the family $500 a month to send Teddy to Here We Grow for two days a week.

Child care centers are also feeling the push to expand so that more spots are available.

Since Parker School was closed in June 2019, the Parker School Task Force has been pushing to use that facility for child care with more open space for child care programs and the possibility of expansion in the future — even getting $500,000 in state Regional Economic Development money to do so.

The city of Cortland would buy the building for the projects, which the city estimated would cost about $4 million.

It would cost $91 to purchase the school from the Cortland City Enlarged School District — a plan that recently received support through a district-wide referendum, but awaits final approval from the city Common Council — and possibly millions more to develop and run the site.

If the city buys the building, it will benefit the project known as the Head Start/Early Head Start program that CAPCO and the YWCA are working on together.

The plan includes moving existing CAPCO and YWCA child care services to the former school building and becoming tenants of the city.

CAPCO is looking to house pre-kindergartners in four classrooms, which will open classrooms at its other location for the birth- to 36-month program that has a waiting list of more than 100 children. The YWCA could merge its two day care programs, Here We Grow and Learning Adventure, to serve more than 100 children under one roof.

“The opportunity for the former Parker location to keep the tradition of providing services to children and families in Cortland County is something that is needed for families, children and the Cortland County community as a whole,” said Lindy Glennon, executive director for the Cortland County Community Action Program, or CAPCO.

That program, which is federally funded through the Administration of Children and Families, promotes the school readiness of children from birth to age 5 to low-income families enhancing all facets of development, Glennon said.

Places like the SUNY Cortland child care center are not looking into expansion, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said center director Stephanie Fritz, but could benefit from more space.

“All of our current spots are filled through June of 2021,” Fritz said. “The Center does not have any extra spots, especially since COVID-19 changes. We have an extensive waitlist and could probably open another whole center with the demand for care locally.”

But finding funding to support increasing capacity doesn’t come easily, Dale-Hall said.

Funding for spaces

Dale-Hall said Cortland County had a 31% decline in capacity because of new regulations, “mostly through closures of Head Start and day care centers.”

“Home-based care, group family and family day care, also dropped, but not as much,” she said.

And monitoring the need for child care in the county has become more difficult as the state continues only opening certain industries at a time.

Cortland County did receive federal CARES Act funding but it does not help increase the number of spots available. Of the $164 million the state received from the federal government, $30 million was distributed as scholarships and used for essential personnel supplies for operations statewide, said Dale-Hall.

Cortland County got $32,354 in scholarships for essential personnel and $22,800 for personal protection equipment and supplies.

“We expended the full amount,” Dale-Hall said.

Another $65 million has been set aside to support programs, capacity and supplies. But Dale-Hall said they don’t know what the county’s allocation of that money will be yet.

The next round of funding only helps get facilities back to their pre-coronavirus numbers, and doesn’t increase the number of spots to be filled, Dale-Hall said.

That CARES Act funding application process closes July 15 and the programs must be open for business within two weeks of the application approval process. “We are not clear how school-age child care programs will be open or supported in the fall,” she said.

But even with the Parker School project, it remains unclear whether that will actually increase spots available for children.

Plus Dale-Hall said the task force may find difficulties in raising matching funds or finding funds to proceed with the idea. Then there’s paying for the staff. …

More funds to pay staff

A challenge for child care is balancing the need to pay staff enough to make the jobs attractive while holding down the cost of child care to make it affordable to families, as well as finding people to take on these roles.

Fritz said salaries at the college’s child care center are $25,000 for a teacher and $23,400 a year for assistant teachers. The benefits, however, are substantial, in contrast to what the salaries of her staffers are.

Staff members at SUNY Cortland receive health insurance, vision and dental insurance and retirement benefits.

“It’s a huge benefit for our staff that many other child care providers may not have access to,” she said.

The center’s income comprises 92% parent tuition, whether through private pay, Department of Social Services funds or a SUNY Federal Block Grant, Fritz said.

The other 8% comes from the college’s child care and adult food program, Cortland City Universal Pre-Kindergarten and other small grants.

The need to increase salaries is important for early child care educators locally and across the state, Fritz said. She added if the colleges were to raise salaries, “parents will have an increase in tuition, the way we are currently funded.”

The benefits of child care is supporting the community by being able to work and have a safe place for kids to go to, said Jamie Bistocchi, child care director at the YWCA.

“It impacts our society and it’s our goal to educate when they enter school,” she said.

Fritz said quality child care ensures that mothers and fathers can go to work feeling at ease that their child is being cared for.

“Parents are then able to perform their work successfully and create social and economic benefits for themselves,” she said.

Fritz added that children benefit from learning social skills and creating bonds with their caregivers, and it helps to build a better future for them once they get into school.

“They have a stable, safe and positive environment that builds on the skills they already have and help to ensure their future school success,” Fritz said.

But Bistocchi said pay and benefits for the staff are “meager,” and added that the “cost of care doesn’t cover our expenses.”

She said they need more financial support.

“We need more staff to take care of these kids,” she said. “I don’t know how to support it. We need support from local businesses or we need support from the state or feds for aid. It’s not just baby-sitting.”

Child care costs

That’s one of the hardest parts — finding a way to ensure all the cost isn’t on the parents’ backs, said Dale-Hall.

“I think that the biggest challenge with child care is that we put this on the parents — they have to pay the lion’s share of the cost and that’s not enough revenue to make the programs stand on their own,” Dale-Hall said.

On top of that, she said it is hard for people to afford child care costs, even those who have a moderate income.

“When you think about child care funding, it really starts at the federal level and is aimed at lower-income people to help them get child care,” she said. “There’s not a regular ongoing support for child care for families regardless of their income. Low to moderate and middle-income families still have difficulty paying for child care.”

Dale-Hall said the best financial model — the so-called “iron triangle”— relies upon three components: facilities charging the true cost of care, having 100% enrollment and being able to collect 100% of the fees.

“The problem is that most programs cannot charge the full cost of care (where the child-care work force is paid a worthy wage respectful of the professionalism they provide), because parents can’t afford to pay more,” Dale-Hall said.

The cost of child care for families with children at the SUNY Cortland Child Care Center is $11,960 a year for an infant, $11,180 for a toddler and $10,660 for a preschooler.

Fritz has asked local businesses and child care directors for ideas on how to find a balance between affordable child care and staff pay, but ideas have come to “no avail.”

“The local businesses know how important child care is and support our cause,” she said. “The system seems broken and I’m not sure what will fix it other than federal or state assistance in operating money for our payroll expenses or changing the market rates to match the true cost of care.”

Fritz added that universal child care could be the future, but “comes at a cost of the state and taxpayers.”

The cost of child care at the YWCA is $235 a week for an infant, $224 for a toddler and $214 for a preschooler.

“We’re a little above the market rates in the county, which is a good thing when it comes to affordability,” Bistocchi said. Bistocchi mentioned that schools receive state aid, but child care programs don’t.

Operating at a loss

Before the coronavirus epidemic hit, some facilities, like the YWCA, were operating at a loss. This issue has only been exacerbated over the past few months.

“Now we are struggling even more, especially with new mandates for child and staff entry and cleaning duties,” Bistocchi said.

Bistocchi said the YWCA has applied to the United Way for Cortland County “and they have been helpful.”

The child care center is also applying for funding through the state Office of Children and Family Services for a $1,500 to $6,000 grant for supplies.

“We are applying to foundations for operating support at this time to help us continue operating through this time,” she said.

There needs to be a significant increase in support and in particular funding if people want the child care system to continue, Dale-Hall said.

“Child care was on the economic brink before COVID,” Dale-Hall said. “Now, programs have endured many months with lower revenues and increased expenses that will clearly continue into the future. If we want economic recovery, we need to find ways to support this field.”