Missoula Early Learning Center to expand; businesses can reserve spots for employees

Missoula Early Learning Center

In its early stages, an estimated $2 million expansion of the Missoula Early Learning Center could include an additional 10 rooms, allowing up to 220 children at the daycare center.

The center opened in February 2017 and currently serves 70 children aged 0 to 5.

The additional 150 open spots will help parents in the workforce and those who are on the center’s waiting list.

Missoula Early Learning Center and the Missoula Chamber of Commerce will work together to build relationships with local businesses, allowing them to pay for reserved spots at the center for their employees’ children.

Costs for businesses to reserve spots haven’t yet been determined.

Kelly Rosenleaf, executive director of Child Care Resources in Missoula, said the lack of child care in Montana means some working parents are unable to find or afford care for their child.

That makes it increasingly difficult for parents to stay in the workforce. Infant care is the hardest to find in Missoula and statewide, and many parents are not able to return to their professional careers after having a baby.

“As we see a workforce shortage and a decline in child care, we obviously have a problem,” Rosenleaf said during a recent meeting with the Chamber. “It’s creating a problem for our businesses, it’s creating a problem for parents, and it’s creating a problem for children.”

Kim Latrielle, president and CEO of the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, hopes that the model of allowing businesses to reserve spots for employees can be used in other Montana cities with a child care shortage.

“What I’m hoping is, when we’re successful in Missoula, that this is a scalable model that across the state of Montana [where] other communities are struggling with the same thing, may look at and follow what we’ve done to start this conversation,” she said.

About two-thirds of pre-kindergarten children in Montana have working parents. While Missoula has room to service 70 percent of the children who need care, Rosenleaf said there isn’t enough room in existing centers for the remaining 30 percent.

In addition to the expansion, Mark Roberts, co-owner and operations manager of the Missoula Early Learning Center, wants to add an after-hours program and a wellness ward, where sick children can receive care from a nurse while their parents are at work.

That way, parents will be able to use their vacation time to spend with their families.

“Mom and dad don’t have to burn all of their summer vacation, especially when they bring their kiddo in for the first time,” Roberts said at the Chamber meeting. “For that first year, they’re going to go home a lot. They’re going to get sick a lot. It just happens.”

An after-hours program would provide quality care for EMTs, nurses, casino workers and others who do not work traditional daytime hours.

Roberts said that because of partnerships, the amount businesses spend on child care for their employees can help with construction costs and stabilize care costs for parents. Roberts said that certain costs will not grow equally with the number of children they’ll be caring for, such as food and electricity, resulting in some savings.

The center separates children into rooms by age and development stage, with the appropriate number of designated teachers and aides. Each room has a director who creates a curriculum and keeps personal relationships with parents.

The center participates in state programs such as the Stars to Quality program and serves families who use Best Beginning Scholarships. To Roberts, the center is different than other facilities; he wants to expand in order to help the Missoula community.

In Missoula County, 122 licensed child care facilities exist, mostly in the urban area. There are no licensed facilities in Seeley Lake, Potomac or Alberton.

Statewide statistics show a drop from 962 licensed child care facilities in 2015 to 911 in 2018.

“This illustrates a downward trend that has been occurring for 15 years, not just in Missoula or Montana,” Rosenleaf said. “It’s a national trend.”

In Region 2, which includes Missoula, Mineral and Ravalli counties, licensed child care centers have dropped from 172 in 2015 to 157 in 2018.

Margaret McManus, vice president and chief administrative officer at Allegiance Benefit Plan Management in Missoula, said the company is interested in using the center to reserve spots for its employees.

For three years, Allegiance has held hearings so employees can express concerns to the company. Many suggested creating a child care center on site.

“One of the big ones that I wasn’t aware of was child care. We started getting a push each year,” McManus said. “We’re in the business of employee benefits. We don’t know how to run a daycare.”

Allegiance allows employees to work at home with their infants for three to six months, but this is only a temporary solution to child care.

While there isn’t a date set for when construction may begin, Roberts said the preparations are moving forward.

“I am very passionate about this,” he said. “There’s this thing between intent and action, and I want all of the action in the world. But right now, we’re really focusing on the intent of what is going to happen.”