Like many parents across Kansas, Edwards County Extension Agent Trisha Greene was having great difficulty finding day care in Kinsley, where she lives and works.
After visiting with the local economic development director, they decided to put together a committee to search for solutions.
A subsequent study through Kansas State University pointed to the severity of the need, Greene said, and identified a key issue contributing to the shortage — a lack of affordable space that could meet stringent state licensing requirements.
By addressing that need in several ways, over the last 18 months the community has gone from 10 day care slots to 50 and is well on its way to filling the need identified in the study of at least 75.
“We are seeing the positive impact it has on our communities,” said Greene, an agent with the 21st District Extension Office. “We’ve had employers successfully recruit new employees into our community due to open day care slots.”
Day care crisis is statewide issue
The crisis of access to affordable day care is statewide. A chronic issue for a while in many places, the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic brought it front and center.
It has prompted varied responses in communities around the state, but one common denominator identified through studies is a lack of building space for operators to set up.
The model used in Edwards County is being duplicated, in part, in neighboring Stafford and Kiowa counties.
Other communities, however, are taking different approaches.
In Barber County, a prominent business owner obtained a state grant to help remodel a downtown building his pharmacy is moving out of. Unexpected challenges have shifted the plan, though it remains the ultimate goal to address the need in Medicine Lodge.
In Lindsborg, in McPherson County, the community is conducting a fundraising campaign to build a massive care center to address most of the needs.
In Reno County, more than half of the projected $10 million a group has identified as needed to address the shortage would be for constructing or upgrading child care facilities that often present a barrier to licensing.
In Kinsley, in Edwards County, a committee formed by community leaders and volunteers has looked at various options, from buying and remodeling a building to asking the school to start a program.
“We went to the school to see if they would partner with us,” Greene said. “They were not a willing partner to directly fund it, but they did have space. There was a modular with two classrooms available. The committee rents the space from the school.”
The day care provider rents the building from the committee.
“One thing the assessment told us is people would like to open a day care that’s not in their home, due to the wear and tear and wanting their home separate from their workplace,” she said.
A goal was to keep the rent low, so they’ll rent each side of the building for $250 a month.
“We helped put supplies in the room, as far as a refrigerator, a microwave, shelving and other various day care supplies,” she said. “If the provider quits, we are well equipped to move another provider in quickly.”
It’s up to the provider to become licensed, but the building is designed as a day care to meet state regulations and make that easier.
Since April 2021, the group has enabled the opening of three new day cares in town. The third one is in a house they’re renting out for the same price as the modular.
The committee is currently working to locate new facilities in Lewis and Offerle. They’re working in Lewis first, Greene said, where the city is leasing the land for $1, and they again plan to move in a modular.
Then they will shift their focus to Offerle.
“Maybe the school district will have something, or we can find a house,” Greene said. “As a last resource, we’ll move in a modular.”
The projects in Kinsley were made possible through local donations, including a resident who donated materials for a playground. In Lewis, the county pledged $76,000.
“Currently, our funding has come from generous community donations. We plan to seek grant funding to continue supporting the daycares that are in place with supplies or other various needs to keep them going,” she said.
“With the Lewis day care, we’re just 25 spots away from meeting the identified need, starting from almost zero,” Greene said.
Her advice to others trying to address similar challenges is “keep moving forward.”
“It may look like there is never an end in sight, which is what it looked like when we started,” she said. “We just kept meeting and finding solutions to meet our needs. Find people in the community willing to help and make change.”
Stafford County borrows a page from Edwards County
In Stafford County, a similar study showed a need for 70 to 100 child care slots, with 70% of those in St. John, where there are two operating facilities.
More than 70% of the study’s respondents indicated they’d be able to return to work or extend working hours if reliable day care was available, said Kathleen Norman, executive director of Stafford County Economic Development.
That would increase household income by an average of $30,000 a year or more, said Norman, also vice president of the Stafford County Childcare Committee.
Like in Kinsley, finding locations has been one of the biggest barriers, Norman said.
“Stafford County is at a true tipping point,” Norman stated in a blog post about the effort. “If families cannot find adequate and safe child care, they will relocate. If they relocate, there will be fewer people to employ within Stafford County to keep businesses running.”
Taking a page from Edwards County, the 10-member Child Care Committee, which includes Norman and Greene, is working to secure funding and a location to bring a modular classroom building to St. John, which, like Kinsley, will house two new day cares.
The facility would have room for 18 children of all ages, from newborn to age 12, Norman said,
“There’s still some discussion on the location, but we are hoping to have that affirmed by the end of July,” she said.
Commitments so far include $65,000 from the city of St. John and $55,000 from the Stafford County Commission. Officials estimate the cost will be about $124,000, including site work, utility hookups, fencing and building modifications.
The used 24-by-64-foot building is currently in Augusta.
“We’re hoping to get it by the end of August, but that might be a little unrealistic,” Norman said. “Once it’s here, it will have to go through a fire marshal inspection and KDHE inspection before its operational. The goal is for it to be operational by the end of the year.”
Like in Edwards County, the building will be owned, furnished and maintained by the child care committee’s fiscal sponsor and leased out.
“Knowing how a daycare cash flows, we need to be able to provide reasonable rent,” Norman said. “I know Edwards County kept their rent, including utilities, at $250 a month for providers. We’re looking at a $250 to $300 range to enable that business to be successful.”
While there are ongoing costs, such as property and liability insurance and utilities, they hope covering the upfront development costs will allow it to cash flow, she said.
Besides the modular building, the local school district is working to open a facility by August in one of its buildings that would give preference to teachers and staff, Norman said. It could potentially house up to 10 children.
The committee is also working with a church to operate a day care out of its facility, but it is more of a long-term plan, she said.
In Macksville, there are currently no licensed day cares available.
The committee was exploring purchasing a building on Main Street but was unable to secure funding, Norman said.
“We’ve had a preliminary conversation with an individual who may open home-based day care there, but there are still a lot of moving parts,” she said.
In the city of Stafford, services are more stable, though the needs assessment indicated it would support at least one more day care. The committee is talking with a business about the possibility of having a day care operate out of part of its space, Norman said.