Lebanon plan for city-owned day care worries existing facilities struggling to find workers

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-31-2023 5:14 PM

WEST LEBANON — A partnership between the city and a nonprofit to build and operate a publicly owned child care center is raising concerns among Upper Valley child care providers, who worry the project will exacerbate the region’s ongoing child care staffing challenges.

On Monday City Manager Shaun Mulholland and Chris Emond, of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central NH, will hold a public discussion about the plan to build a day care on city-owned land off Airpark Road near Lebanon Municipal Airport.

The center would be operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs, a national provider of child and adolescent programs. As proposed, it could serve up to 200 children and infants.

Several existing child care providers — who already struggle to recruit and retain employees — question where this new mega-center would find a workforce with poaching from existing facilities.

Staffing largely determines a child care center’s enrollment capacity, since programs must adhere to staff-to-child ratios set by their state, explained Jennifer Hosmer, executive director of the Children’s Center of the Upper Valley in Lebanon. Without proper staffing, a child care center cannot accept new enrollments, which undercuts its operating revenue.

“Our centers are struggling everyday with turmoil and not knowing if they can be open (due to a lack of staff),” Hosmer said.

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Babble-on Daycare, a child care center in White River Junction, decided to close last month after 28 years in operation due to an inability to find staff.

“Everyone was burned out,” Babble-On Director Vicki Covell said the decision to close the business.

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that temporarily closed child care programs, Babble-on had a nine-person staff and was serving up to 32 children.

When it reopened later that year, only 18 children and four staff members returned.

Covell said she wanted to restore enrollment to 32 children but she could never attract enough workers.

“I had been trying for almost three years to get enough staff to go back to 32 kids, but it just wasn’t happening,” Covell said.

The lack of competitive wages is frequently cited as a deterrent to employment in child care or early education. In a recent Valley News story, providers said that wages can vary widely but typically range between $13 to $16 an hour for full-time staff.

The wage issue led to Upper Valley high schools closing programs that offered early childhood education as a vocational area. Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center in Claremont closed its program in 2016, and the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center closed its program in 2019.

Hosmer, whose center serves up to 96 children, worries about losing staff members to the Lebanon facility, which would need scores of workers to serve 200 children, in addition to the city’s plan to operate on weekends to assist parents who work nontraditional hours.

“I don’t know how we are going to survive if we can’t offer some of the benefits that larger (programs provide),” Hosmer said.

Some Upper Valley programs, including the Children’s Center, offer higher than average wages (between $15 and $22 an hour) and benefits that include health and dental insurance, paid time off, free or discounted child care or tuition reimbursement.

But many Upper Valley centers will struggle to match the Lebanon plan to pay highly competitive wages and benefits, Hosmer said.

In an email, City Manager Shaun Mulholland said that operating models need to change in order to encourage livable wages in the industry.

“Child care workers have been leaving the profession to work at Walmart, public schools and other employers,” Mulholland said. “Like the rest of us, they need to pay their bills. There are a number of solutions that are and will need to be put into place to change the situation. If we continue to operate the same model we use, we are likely to continue to receive the same result.”

Mulholland’s initiative is modeled on Suncook Clubhouse, a child care center Mulholland developed — also in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs — in Allenstown, N.H., where Mulholland served as town manager before accepting the top administrative role in Lebanon.

Whereas privately-owned child care programs rely primarily on tuition to fund operations, a public-nonprofit partnership can access a number of additional revenue sources such as grants, tax credits or donations. The city will also lower the center’s operating costs by assuming responsibilities for building maintenance and utilities, Mulholland said.

The city’s goal is to offer 51% of the child care openings to families with low to moderate incomes.

Since August 2021, the city has worked with a consortium that included Vital Communities and Dartmouth College to identify solutions to the child care shortage in the Upper Valley.

Lebanon recently collaborated with State Sen. Sue Prentiss, D-Lebanon, to develop SB 221, legislation to allow municipalities to provide a property tax exemption for child care facilities. On Thursday, the state Senate, by a unanimous vote, recommended SB 221 to the House for a study committee to consider the legislation.

The discussion of the Lebanon child care center will take place on Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. at Lebanon City Hall in Meeting Room 1. Participants can also log in remotely via Microsoft Teams, meeting ID 290 774 980 844, passcode p8VLZZ.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

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