The Sopris Sun

Trustees discuss daycare shortage in special meeting

By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff

Carbondale’s board of trustees want to help alleviate a shortage of infant and young-child daycare options in the valley, and they told a group of pre-school personnel, parents and other advocates at a meeting on July 18 that the town will do what it can.

But, as Trustee Ben Bohmfalk said during a report about the meeting on KDNK-FM on the following day, “The town doesn’t have a big pot of money” that it can devote to boosting the availability of childcare in Carbondale or elsewhere in the valley.

Instead, the trustees agreed they would pass on to the planning and zoning commission (P&Z) a list of suggestions and recommendations from the advocates aimed at making it easier for a preschool or another education-oriented organization to gain town approval for a school or other type of facility.

The trustees met on July 18 with representatives of the Cradle to Career Initiative (CCI) of the Aspen Community Foundation (ACF), the Carbondale Childcare Coalition, officials with the Blue Lake & Little Blue Preschools (in El Jebel and Carbondale, respectively) and other advocates.

The advocates presented the trustees with a 16-page packet of information, based on numerous studies of child-care education and its effect on later brain development, social skills and other attributes related to a child’s developmental abilities starting at an early age.

Among other things, the packet related that there are numerous types of influence accounting for a child’s development, including the number of spoken words a child hears in the first few years of life, and a child’s exposure to early education.

“The number of words heard by age three is correlated with the child’s later IQ and academic success,: according to the information presented to the town. “Typically, children of professional parents will hear three times as many spoken words by age three as children in welfare-recipient families, and the three-year-old child of professional parents will have a vocabulary over twice as large.

In addition, according to information gathered by the Cradle to Career Initiative, “…when young children are exposed to educational programming, they learn social and emotional skills at the time that their brains are the most malleable. This opens an opportunity for decades of success. Ensuring broad access to quality early education helps children to gain equal footing when they begin school.”

The effects of this kind of development, according to the packet, include the ability to master math and reading skills, higher scores on achievement tests, higher high-school graduation rates, better emotional and behavioral control, and lowered dependence on special education and social welfare programs.

The packet also maintains that there are severe unmet needs for families with children between the ages of  1 and 12 years, a claim backed up by stories from parents about the difficulties inherent in finding childcare for infants and toddlers, and even the availability of after-school programming for children in that age group.

According to the information provided for the 2015-2016 school year, there were roughly 1,450 children in the 5-12-year-old age group in Carbondale, while the total number of after-school spaces for such children is about 300 during the school year, and about 50 during the summertime.

Similar ratios were found during the 2016-2017 school year, the informational packet reported.

To meet the needs implied by the information above, the child-care specialist told the trustees, there need to be more pre-school facilities capable of accepting children from the infant stage onward.

Michelle Oger, director of Blue Lake Preschool, told the trustees that there currently is a five-year wait for infant care in the mid-valley.

When Mayor Dan Richardson asked Oger what the “biggest hurdle” is for starting new preschools, she replied, “Space is the largest hurdle; to be able to find affordable space.”

Plus, she said, it is difficult to find qualified teachers who can afford the valley’s high costs of living.

“This seems to be a systemic problem,” noted Trustee Marty Silverstein, “not just here, but people in New Castle and Rifle and Silt have this problem.”

The advocates concurred, and Gretchen Brogdon with the ACF assured the trustees that their intent was to urge Carbondale to deal with its own issues, “not to solve the whole child-care problem.”

Among the recommended solutions that the proponents suggested were that the town create zone districts where child-care institutions are a use by right; expand the zones where child-care businesses are allowed under special review, and to change parking requirements for child-care businesses to make it easier to establish drop-off spaces on the street.

After a lengthy discussion, the trustees agreed to send the recommendations to the P&Z for review and comment, but the mayor noted that Carbondale has one problem that other area towns do not: “The real challenge in Carbondale is, we’re not growing out, we’re growing up,” meaning there is little vacant space for new development in town (without moving to annex more land) so the town is moving toward development that is more dense and building taller structures.

Plus, he said, most available commercial spaces in town are “really small” — perhaps too small for the need of preschool facilities.

The trustees talked about other potential solutions, such as changing development-review regulations to add child-care facilities to the list of possible exactions from developers, such  as affordable housing and parks.

The trustees and the child-care advocates agreed that some of the issues under discussion should be presented to area school boards, as well as town governments, with an eye toward finding a multi-faceted set of solutions to the problem.