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On the Edge: Is child care headed off a cliff in Western North Carolina?

Brittain Peck/ For BPR

This is the first in a series, On the Edge, examining the issues facing families with children in Western North Carolina.

In North Carolina counties west of Asheville, child care can be difficult to find. For parents in Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Jackson Counties, the task became nearly impossible in mid-October when a nonprofit that operates child care in the region announced the closure of seven child care centers, leaving 300 children without care during the day while their families were at work.

When the Clay County Early Education Center announced it would close at the end of October. Jill Baxter was worried.

“We initially just kind of panicked and we were trying to do everything we could to try to figure out another option for us,” Baxter said.

The Baxter Family lives in Clay County.
Courtesy of the Baxter Family
The Baxter Family lives in Clay County.

Baxter, a Hayesville native, moved back to the area with her husband Miguel from Winston Salem during the pandemic to raise their two children near family. Silas, now five-years-old, started kindergarten this year but three-year-old Jura is still in daycare.

She attended one of the three Southwestern Child Development Commission centers that closed at the end of October.

Clay County Department of Social Services Director Todd Goins says announcement hit families like an anvil.

“It truly is devastating and angering to see it coming because you see the impacts it has on families firsthand. You have a lot of families who have no support or no backup. And they rely on that child care to be able to go to work and support their families,” Goins said.

In Clay County, the closures meant families of 70 children had two weeks to find other arrangements for their child’s care in a region where options are limited or nonexistent.

Goins says the centers shuttering is just the first step toward a child care cliff.

“What I keep hearing is the term “cliff” that we're heading towards a child care crisis cliff. There's other centers around us and our region. There are closing as well and we're afraid this is going to continue to happen if it's not addressed,” Goins said.

During COVID-19, federal funding was available to help keep child centers in the black but that funding ended September 30.

National reports warned that more than 70,000 child care centers were in danger of closing across the country.

Clay County manager Debbie Mauney said the closures in Western North Carolina are the result of a convergence of several factors over many years.

“This crisis has been coming for a long time,” Mauney said. Before she served as county manager, Mauney served for 30 years at DSS and served on the Southwestern Child Development Commission board for more than 25 years.

Mauney estimated a cost of $700,000 to keep all five SCDC Centers open for the rest of the school year. She hoped state lawmakers would be able to provide the funds, but they weren’t able to stop the closure.

Shelia Hoyle shared Mauney’s hope. She is the director of the Southwestern Child Development Commission where she has worked for nearly four decades.

It was a tough decision to close this arm of the commission.

“When the stabilization grants ended it wasn't like we fixed you. No, we just brought you back to the level of deficit that you were comfortable with,” Hoyle said. Direct child care was one of four main services that the commission provided.

Executive Director of Southwestern Child Development Commission Sheila Hoyle explains child care subsidies.
Lilly Knoepp
/
BPR
Executive Director of Southwestern Child Development Commission Sheila Hoyle explains child care subsidies.

Hoyle explained that the state has long subsidized child care in order to allow families to go to work.

The state Legislature sets a formula to support each level of child care in each county across the state. It is designed to make sure the system enforces the same standards of care across the state, but Hoyle says the result is anything but equitable.

“Inequity in the market rate means, for me and the seven counties that I work in, that my urban counterparts receive between $400 and $500 more per month, per child. That is an outrageous difference in the cost of care,” Hoyle said. She explained that this is for subsidized child care and said that the majority of child care in the region is subsidized.

Rural counties receive significantly less funding for each child than urban counties for the same care. The formula accounts for higher costs such as rent in urban areas, but Hoyle said it ignores the added expenses of smaller class sizes and administrative costs in rural areas.

“Nationally and statewide we are discussing does urban child care really cost more than rural child care,” Hoyle said.

Lawmakers offered House and Senate bills to update the ranking systems for child care centers and to increase child care subsidies including a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senator Kevin Corbin(R-50).

None of the measures passed.

Hoyle said there are more resources available now than when she started in the industry, such as the NC Pre-K program which provides early child education for eligible 4-year-olds. But she said families still suffer because of the lack of formal infrastructure for child care.

Hoyle said the state funding issue is only one part of the challenge. She looked at current fast-food wages and said she can’t compete.

“I can't get staff who will work at the wages that child care can afford to and as we have already discussed I can’t go up on the fees,” Hoyle said.

Goins agreed.

“The staff shortage that you see absolutely everywhere, you see it in child care as well. That also affects the revenue coming in to stay within that staff: child ratio the licensing requires. So if you don't have the staff you can't accept as many kids and it makes it harder to sustain,” Goins said.

Hindering the workforce

The impact stretches far beyond the individual struggles of families looking for child care.

Without child care, parents can’t work.

In Clay County, more than 30 of the children who needed care after the centers closed were public school staff.

Jill Baxter is one of those parents. She works as a speech pathologist at the school.

“Like 20 teachers, that would have had to been considering taking the leave of absence from their job because they have kids in daycare here - including our son's kindergarten teachers,” Baxter said.

She said the staff worked hard to explain to community leaders why the daycare needed to stay open.

The Clay County School Board intervened, pledging $45,000 to take over one of the centers until the end of the school year. The public school previously oversaw the daycare so they were able to seamlessly continue care for about 30 of the students.

“We were so grateful. We met with them and did what we could to try to fight for the daycare, for them to take it over, for the county to take it over for somebody to take it over,” Baxter said. The daycare is on the school property so it is much easier for Baxter to pick up and drop off her daughter.

Mauney said she is proud of the way the county was able to work together to recover after the announcement.

Beyond the school board, A private donor came forward to give $50,000 to keep a second center (Elf Early Education and Preschool) open until the end of the year. And other local daycares have opened up additional classrooms to allow parents to pay for care through June.

“This is going to be a temporary fix as well until we find secure more money in the future,” Mauney said.

Goins explained that while all of the current children have spots at the daycare, next year there will still be an issue.

“It might hold for the kids that we have right now, but the future kids are going to need child care as well. There's no place to refer to if we can't sustain it and keep going,” Goins said.

Mauney said she hopes North Carolina governmental officials realize how crucial the need is for more rural child care subsidy funding.

“I think the formula at least needs to be looked at and with rural counties not getting as much as the larger counties because child care is expensive to provide whether you're in Clay County or you're in Raleigh,” she said.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.