- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - Shortly after Chaim Bruk and his wife moved from Brooklyn to Bozeman, they adopted their first child.

Co-directors of the Bozeman synagogue and Jewish community center Chabad Lubavitch of Montana, the couple had plans for raising their daughter, Courtney: Homeschooling, they agreed, with an emphasis on faith-based education.

But circumstances changed, and Bruk, who compares rigidity with foolishness, realized that a more traditional path was in order.

“As it turns out, when you’re a parent, you need to do what’s best for your children, not what’s best in your head. And not having (Courtney) in a structured school system was not the best thing for her,” Bruk said.

The pair applied for a position at Bozeman Montessori in their daughter’s name. A few weeks later, they received a notice that she had been accepted.

Everything about the program - from the individualized attention from instructors to its flexibility with dietary restrictions - was positive, Bruk said.

“It’s been really an amazing experience. The school has been amazing and the director and teachers have been outstanding,” he said. “I wish every child in the country got the experience my children got at Bozeman Montessori.”

But with high costs and low supply causing child care facilities in the Gallatin Valley to burst at the seams, many children aren’t as lucky.

Eight years after Bruk first applied, the current wait for infant care at Bozeman Montessori is one year. Many children will age out before they get a chance to enter the program.

Perhaps more telling, said Assistant Director Chris McNeil, the school has received at least one application from a set of parents who had yet to conceive.

“That’s one of the hardest parts about the desire to serve all families but not having the financial possibility to do so,” McNeil said. “It’s frustrating. I love what we do, I just wish we could do it for more families.”

And the problem is ubiquitous, with many child care centers around the valley reporting similar wait lists and program queues.

“It’s definitely a huge challenge,” said Jessica Dehn, owner of Dino Drop-In, which recently opened a second facility in Belgrade. “I hear from my customers daily that it’s one of their biggest struggles to piece together child care.”

“I just tell them I wish I could take them all,” added ABC Kidz Director Ashleigh Clark.

The Early Childhood Services Bureau, part of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, oversees the 314 licensed child care facilities across the state, which is broken into seven regions. Each region has a referral agency, helping connect families with providers and providers with state and federal resources.

Region 4, a six-county swath that includes Gallatin, Park, Jefferson, Broadwater, Meagher and Lewis and Clark counties, encompasses 72 licensed programs - from preschools to daycares - 52 of which are in Bozeman.

But the area’s growing population, coupled with the cost of care and a decrease in facility numbers, have strained the system, said Jane Arntzen Schumacher, executive director of Child Care Connections, the referral agency for Region 4.

“We’re concerned. We feel like parents and providers are in a bind,” Schumacher said. “To do truly quality care costs; it’s not free. Providers can’t keep good staff with the rates they have now, but parents can’t afford the rates now.”

The state has several grant programs to help improve and subsidize child care, including STARS to Quality, which incentivizes providers to take part in training and qualifications on topics from social and emotional development to food and nutrition. Scholarships are also available for low-income families. But the funding often does little to offset tuition.

According to one estimate compiled by the Economic Policy Institute, infant care in Montana costs, on average, more than $750 per month. In the Gallatin Valley, several facilities cited prices closer to $1,000.

But these rates, while high, are in line with the costs of facility expenses and paying decent wages for workers, providers said.

“You keep struggling and try to find a balance,” McNeil said. “We try to explain when families come in that our tuitions are higher because of how much it costs to operate because of staff.”

Meanwhile, officials noted that the search for cheaper options has led to the proliferation of unlicensed and lower quality facilities.

“We feel like that’s reflected in the quality of care. There is terrible care out there,” Schumacher said. “Parents care, but they always seem to go for affordability instead of quality.”

“It just doesn’t pencil out,” she continued. “The cost of child care has gone beyond the cost of tuition, yet providers can’t make a go of it. The whole industry is collapsing on itself, and that’s scary for children.”

The industry’s fine margins have resulted in a marked decline in the availability of care across Montana. Statewide, almost 1,500 licensed child care providers shut down between 2010 and 2015, according to DPHHS data. The closures eliminated 6,000 positions for children, while over the same period, the state’s population grew by around 45,000.

“Our biggest hardship right now is finding people who want to provide child care,” said Tori Sproles, professional development coordinator at Child Care Connections. “Working in early child care doesn’t pay well. A lot of providers hang out in this relatively doable area, but they can’t pay very well. There is a lot of turnover as well, because you can’t hold on to staff when you can go to McDonald’s and make $13 an hour.”

Several providers in Gallatin County have closed in recent months due to the inability to keep their workers, according to Schumacher.

“It is a problem, and I don’t know if there is a way to balance the price point,” said Karissa Erickson, who founded Four O Six Nannies along with Melissa Smith last fall. “It’s expensive, but you end up getting what you pay for if you go a cheaper route.”

Eight years on from his first experience with child care, Bruk now has four children - Courtney, 12; Chaya, 7; Zeesy, 6 and Menny, 3. And with each new experience, the rabbi said he gained an increased appreciation for the importance of both childhood care and education.

“I believe the younger years of a child are like the younger years of a tree,” he said. “If the roots are strong and good, it will weather anything that comes later. If we neglect it, how can we expect them to weather the winds of insanity that exist in our society?”

And to neglect the significance of child care would also be to ignore scientific evidence, added Libby Hancock, director of the Montana Early Childhood Project, an outreach organization connected to Montana State University’s Department of Health and Human Development.

“(Working with children is) one of the most important jobs that anyone could have,” Hancock said. “Even with all the research that’s been done on brain development and return on investment in early childhood education, we’re still not providing the kinds of funding as a nation that we need to support every child to be successful in their early years.”

“It’s a crisis and has been a crisis for some time that we’re not paying attention (to),” she continued. “The fact that we’re not paying attention to this is immoral. And as a society, we’re paying for it down the road.”

Providers and officials agreed that there is no single remedy for the child care system but said increased subsidies and funding from state and federal governments could go a long way. Other potential solutions included employer-sponsored child care and legislation surrounding paid family leave.

But despite an uphill battle, Hancock said she remains optimistic that a fix will be found.

“It’s going to take innovation and creativity and really thinking outside the box in order to finance early childhood education in America,” she said. “I believe strongly that’s what it’s going to take to address the crisis we’re at in our valley, in our state and in our country.”

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Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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