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Little Leaders Learning and Care Center Navigating Challenges and Tough Choices

By Raina Lucero

September 6, 2023

In a daunting interview on August 30, 2023, Debi Derby, President of Little Leaders Learning and Care Center, and Jennifer Crow, Treasurer of the same institution, shed light on the tough decision the center’s board members recently made. After a year and a half of grappling with uncertainties and challenges, the board of directors has decided not to reapply for the Child Care License with the State of Colorado. The board has also begun the process of liquidating assets at the center by first contacting local home daycare providers, preschools and others they felt may be able to utilize some of the equipment, toys, and curriculum that was used. Anything that is left will be open to the public as a “yard sale” Saturday September 2 from 10 am -2 pm.

Derby stated, “We are trying to get rid of as much as we can so that we don’t have to throw anything out.” Crow added, “It will be pay what you can afford, we likely won’t turn away any offers.” All proceeds that come in from the sale of any items will be donated to the Town of Eads Pool Fund in order to give back to a project that is in need of help getting off the ground.

This move marks the end of a significant chapter for the center and its journey since opening its doors in 2019. Since its inception, Little Leaders Learning and Care Center has seen its share of highs and lows. One of the most significant challenges has always been the stringent staffing requirements imposed by the State of Colorado’s Department of Early Childhood. The state mandates that all classroom teachers possess a substantial number of hours and specific class credits in relevant subjects to obtain a certification to be a lead teacher in a classroom. These demands not only strained the recruitment process but also posed a financial burden.

Along with the educational requirements for those who work in childcare centers, the rules and regulations for the centers changes so frequently that LLLCC and many across the state have to work extra hard at keeping up with the changes as well as find the funding to comply. The demands from the state fall on the center’s director to dedicate hours of work each week adding to the already long list of duties directors have.

Compounding these challenges is the escalating minimum wage, which had a cascading effect on the center’s ability to compensate its staff adequately without drastically increasing childcare fees. The delicate balance between affordability and quality care became an intricate puzzle for the LLLCC board of directors.

Governor Polis’ endeavor to introduce Universal PreK was met with promise and gave hope that there would be extra funding to open a full time PreK classroom, however its implementation has been fraught with challenges. The lack of adequate funding in the program left parents struggling to secure the promised number of state-funded hours for their eligible children. This discrepancy between expectations and reality once again shut down any hope the board had of opening the doors once again.

Little Leaders Learning and Care Center explored various avenues for financial support, including grants and other private and government funding opportunities. Unfortunately, these endeavors bore little fruit due to the center’s inability to meet the strict eligibility criteria set forth by the funding providers. This hurdle highlighted the uphill battle that smaller childcare centers face when trying to access crucial resources.

The Eads Baptist Church’s contribution to the center’s mission was a heartening display of community support. By offering their building for renovation and licensing in 2019, they helped LLLCC find its footing. Their generosity extended to waiving rent and utility charges for the 501(c)3 program, solidifying their commitment to nurturing the community’s children.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic brought forth new challenges. When essential employees were granted free childcare during the pandemic’s peak, the center’s role as a support system for the community became evident. Board Treasurer Jennifer Crow stated, “We were bursting at the seams through COVID, and all essential workers were getting free childcare.” However, as the free childcare subsided, the center faced a decline in the number of children enrolled.

The recent decision to forgo renewing the Child Care License was not taken lightly. The center’s board members recognized that reapplying for the license would involve a considerable investment of time and resources, potentially lasting 18 months. Moreover, the center would be subjected to new inspections and regulations, negating any potential grandfathered benefits.

Carole Spady who works for Cheyenne Kiowa Lincoln Early Childhood Council (CKLECC) as the QI Coach & Approved Trainer took the time to tell the Independent about what this looks like from her perspective. “It is hard, the educational requirements for the classroom teachers, the demands put on the director, increased minimum wage, and the lack of people willing to work let alone go to school and work full time plays a giant part in the problem with childcare across the state.”

Spady went on to say, “Right now there are only 4 licensed home daycares in our 3 counties, Kiowa County has 0, Lincoln County has 1 and Cheyenne Wells has 3. Which is proof that with the lack of a licensed center, the area is critically underserved in the childcare arena.”

When asked what may lead those who provide care in their homes to not get licensed Spady cited education requirements, regulations, as well as state inspections of someone’s personal space being top of the list even though there are funds available to help with getting a home ready and in compliance with the state to offer licensed care.

Without a licensed facility in the county, Kiowa County residents who qualify for Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) are unable to utilize the service. Pearson states, “We have funds available for the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) as we do every year. The program is an income-based program meaning eligibility is determined based upon household income and assets, so applicants need to fill out an application and provide that information to us.”

Pearson goes on to say, “If a family is eligible to receive CCCAP funds there is also a parent fee as CCCAP does not pay 100% of the cost of childcare. Our allocation from the state for FY24 is $48,868. The problem we have in Kiowa County is that the state will only allow payments made to licensed providers, or what are called Qualified Exempt Providers, of which we have none in the county. The Eads and Plainview School Preschool programs are able to receive CCCAP funds, but neither offers true childcare. Consequently, even though we have CCCAP funds, we are not able to utilize them.”

The story of Little Leaders Learning and Care Center serves as a poignant reflection of the challenges that plague the childcare industry, particularly for smaller centers. The ever-evolving regulations and the conundrum of maintaining quality care while grappling with financial viability have birthed an unintended consequence: a burgeoning black market for childcare services.

Colorado House District 47 Representative Ty Winter responded to our request for a quote regarding the state of childcare in Colorado as well as the particular predicament Kiowa County faces stating, “Kiowa County, or any rural county for that matter, should not be treated the same as Denver County. I will continue to fight for you, and all of the constituents in our district, to ensure our children are not ignored by the Colorado Legislature.”

At this time Little Leaders Learning and Care Center will hold on to their 501(c)3 status in the event a miracle happens and funding becomes available.

The journey of Little Leaders Learning and Care Center encapsulates the complexities of running a childcare facility in today’s world. Despite the challenges and the difficult decision to relinquish the Child Care License, the center’s impact on its community remains undeniable. Debi Derby and Jennifer Crow mirrored each other when they stated, “We have to believe that while it was open, Little Leaders served its purpose.” The shared hope is that lessons learned from this experience will fuel conversations and actions to support the childcare industry’s sustainability and resilience.

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