MISSOULA - The United Way of Missoula County hopes to launch a pilot program that could help meet the region’s need for more childcare opportunities without placing the cost squarely on area taxpayers to fund.
Missoula Childcare Advantage — envisioned as a public-private partnership — must overcome a number of hurdles before it’s up and running. But if the pilot effort is successful, it could establish a new model of public-private daycare across Missoula, according to Grace Decker of United Way.
“We have been working at United Way for three years and much longer through community collaborations to find new solutions to the shortage and costs of childcare in the community,” Decker said. “We now have an opportunity before us to do something we think has great promise to support new childcare businesses in a pilot project, and others in the community after the pilot project shows its worth.”
Childcare has become a national challenge without an easy cure. Congress let the expanded child tax credit expire last December while local efforts have taken a bite at the issue with mixed results.
The venture-backed company MyVillage.com began making inroads in Missoula in 2019 with several in-home child care businesses. Last December, others also came together to form the Montana Early Learning Center – a co-op business based at the former Cold Springs School.
But Decker said the school is now empty and the city’s childcare needs haven’t been met.
“Childcare is a pressing community issue – a crisis right up there with housing,” said Susan Hay Patrick, the CEO of the local United Way. “But as of yet, it’s in no one’s particular portfolio. We want to build this into the ground as evidence of sustainability.”
As proposed, the United Way – with a letter of support from the city and county of Missoula — plans to apply for a state grant to cover the cost of renovating portions of Cold Springs School to accommodate six to 10 childcare businesses.
It also would establish a system of shared business services to help childcare providers within the network handle enrollment, availability, licensing, bookkeeping and other administrative matters.
Such business support has proven effective elsewhere in helping a childcare business improve its stability and bottom line.
“Shared business services have been used as a way to make them more efficient and effective operations,” Decker said. “But childcare in Montana isn’t well networked. We don’t have networks of childcare businesses that can come together to do that.”
That portion of the proposal would require funding, while cost projections and where the funding would come from hasn’t been settled. But one source would likely include the membership of large employers like area hospitals, governments, tech and other sectors that have employees with children.
“The larger employers know the pain their workforce is feeling in finding childcare,” Decker said. “It’s an advantage of the business in the pilot and an advantage for the community because we now have this middle place to support businesses differently, and give employers that benefit they can offer their employees if they’re a member.”
Support from others could be sought, including a request to Missoula County Public Schools for reduced rent to use Cold Springs School. Possible financial support from the city and county could also come into play.
The funding recipe would also pay the daycare workers, which Decker suggested should earn between $21 to $26 an hour. But the exact funding formula remains a work in progress.
“Membership fees will help support the operation of the entity, and we hope a braided public nonprofit source of funding would support the staff,” Decker said.