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Child care dilemma: ‘Nowhere to go’

Concerned parents, city officials asking Marshall Public Schools to hold off on closing school-owned day care

Photo by Deb Gau The fate of Marshall Area Child Care is a question the Marshall School Board will have to consider at an upcoming meeting. School district staff said the child care center has been operating at a loss for the past five years. At the same time, concerned parents say shutting down MACC will only add to a shortage of child care in the Marshall area.

MARSHALL — When her family moved to Marshall a few years ago, Alicia Webb struggled to find day care for her toddler. But she eventually found an opening at the Marshall Area Childcare Center.

Unfortunately, she’s starting that same search all over again — this time for two children. Her family received the news last month that Marshall Public Schools was planning to close the child care center. She started calling around, but so far she has found only long waiting lists for toddler and infant care.

“We’re finding there is nowhere to go,” she said.

Webb and other members of a community group that includes Marshall area parents say they’re not just worried about their own families if MACC closes down. If the center closes, it will only add to the child care shortage in the area. “It’s a community issue,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Marshall School Board will be discussing whether to close MACC, which has been operating at losses of $60,000 or more a year since at least 2015.

In January, school board members said they wanted to give members of the public a chance to be heard, and possibly find a sustainable way to keep the center open. A community group formed to try and find solutions, but members said this week that it hasn’t been easy to come up with detailed proposals in just a month.

The city of Marshall and the Marshall Economic Development Authority have also asked the school board to give the matter more time.

Webb and fellow group member Stephanie McKee said community members have reached out to organizations like the Southwest Initiative Foundation and First Children’s Finance, a nonprofit that helps provide financial and business development advice for child care businesses.

First Children’s Finance “did a pretty thorough analysis” of MACC, and will be able to present a study with some ideas that might help the center stay open, McKee said. They hope the report will be part of the discussion at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

“I think (the school board) really did try everything that they could think of,” Webb said. But there were still more connections and possibilities out there, she said.

Both Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes and the Marshall EDA have written letters in support of holding off on closing MACC, at least until other alternatives can be explored.

“We don’t know that we have the right answer, but we want to be part of the conversation,” said Marshall EDA Director Lauren Deutz.

Byrnes said the city is willing to look at possible partnership options to keep MACC open, like working through Marshall Community Services. The school district and MCS have a joint powers agreement for programs like community education, he said. However, Byrnes said, “It will take a bit of time to study.”

It is the school board’s decision whether or not to close MACC, Byrnes said. But losing a child care provider is something that affects the community as well. The availability of child care factors into families’ decisions on where to live, work and go to school.

“We also view this as a workforce issue, that affects not only the city but the region,” Byrnes said.

After the news broke that MPS was planning to close MACC in July, a group of concerned parents and community members started looking for alternatives. But it’s been hard to prepare a complete proposal in just a month, McKee said. Group member Jill Przybilla said she was also concerned that the school board might be making decisions based on out-of-date information. At their Jan. 19 board meeting, MPS staff said data gathered last fall showed that some local child care providers had openings. But Deutz said more current enrollment numbers from local day care centers showed no available openings for infants and toddlers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed the child care landscape in the area, Deutz said. More children and parents may be staying home, which created financial struggles for some child care providers.

“Obviously, the need is high” for child care in Marshall, Deutz said. Deutz said a study conducted by SWIF last year said there was a need for about 171 more child care openings in Marshall. A lack of available child care isn’t just a problem in Marshall, either. “Infant and toddler care in Marshall and in Lyon County has always been difficult to find,” she said.

A report from the Center For Rural Policy and Development found that the number of in-home child care providers in Minnesota decreased by 27% between 2006 and 2015. While the number of child care centers in Minnesota increased during that time, most of the growth was in the Twin Cities seven-county area. In 2015, southwest Minnesota showed a shortfall of more than 3,000 child care slots needed for children under the age of six.

In 2018, the issue of child care in rural Minnesota got the attention of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who visited with area child care providers at a listening session in Marshall. Even then, providers said child care availability was declining in the area, and waiting lists were long.

Members of the parent task force said they’ve had first-hand experience with the lack of available child care slots in the Marshall area, and the difference MACC made for their families.

Przybilla said when she and her husband accepted jobs in the Marshall area more than four years ago, they struggled to find infant care for their first child.

“We had several months before we would need day care, so we thought we would be fine,” Przybilla said. “But after months of cold calling every center and home provider in Marshall, we realized we were in trouble.” Przybilla said it wasn’t until their baby was nine months old that they found a spot at MACC.

“They have been a godsend ever since. The teachers are well trained and the program is excellent,” she said. But with the news that MACC might be closing, it looks like their family might again be unable to find child care.

Child care is definitely an economic issue for southwest Minnesota communities, said Scott Marquardt, vice president of the Southwest Initiative Foundation. The availability of child care affects where people decide to move and whether they enter the workforce, and because of that it can have a “significant impact” on business growth, Marquardt said.

McKee said the analysis from First Children’s Finance “came up with some good options that I think we haven’t tried yet.” Those ideas included potential changes to how MACC is licensed and the staff ratios it has, finding ways to offset fees, working with Minnesota’s Parent Aware child care rating website, and finding ways to market the center.

“The concern is, we have 30 minutes as a parent group to explain this,” McKee said.

There are even more options MPS could explore to help keep MACC open, supporters said. Marquardt said area communities, child care centers and businesses have found a variety of ways to help keep local daycares open. Besides child care centers finding ways to run more efficiently, there have been cases where partnerships with businesses or community organizations have made it possible to open child care centers, he said. As one example, the Lil Diggers Daycare in Lynd was founded by D&G Excavating to help provide employees with child care, he said. And in Kandiyohi County, the YMCA in Willmar took a big role in supporting the opening of a child care center in Spicer.

“This is a complex issue,” Marquardt said. Both child care centers and home-based daycare are important to the survival of rural Minnesota communities.

In their earlier discussion of the issue, MPS staff said they had looked at the possibility of either a private owner taking over MACC, or a partnership with the Marshall Area YMCA. However, those possibilities didn’t work out.

In the end, it will be up to the MPS school board to decide what happens next with MACC. McKee said she was concerned that board members might not be willing to keep the facility open. But the silver lining in the situation, she said, was that community members were showing interest in trying to address child care needs in the Marshall area.

“This is an opportunity for the community to come together,” McKee said.

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