I’ve sat down to write this letter a number of times. No matter how hard I’ve tried, how many lists I’ve made of things that we value in our learning community, I just couldn’t form the words. I have been and always will be, a very transparent person, that is grounded deeply in my philosophy of leadership. Sometimes, there is no easy way to share things, but to hide the hard parts, the parts that are challenging, would deny an opportunity for change, because out of challenging times, opportunities arise.
Over the past 5 years Here We Grow has continued to strengthen its foundation; a foundation built on family. My entire childhood was enveloped in my parent’s small business, but it never felt like a business. It always just felt like a family. I remember having Christmas parties for all of the employees at our home, attending funerals of family members that were employees, and my Dad randomly announcing a cookout for lunch and coming back to the shop with burgers and brats. Or on hot summer days, if the work was complete and the load order strapped onto the semis for Monday, sending employees home with a paid hour or two at the end of the day. It was and always has been people first. Evidence of this was during the economic recession. There were many family conversations about what to do; how to have the hard conversations about the lack of work. There were prayer filled and tearful conversations at the dinner table. Then something amazing happened. The employees came together and decided that everyone would collectively take a cut in hours, so no one person would be impacted. There were no conversations about seniority, instead a conversation about coming together, as a family.
Throughout the past three months I have spent nearly 30 days at the Capitol, most of these days with Haylee. We had no intended outcomes, but to share the data we compiled that demonstrates inconsistencies and internal issue with DHS, the regulatory authority in Minnesota. Over the course of that time, it was my faith that carried me. Everyone has their own personal views on faith, but for me, my strength rests in God. He led us through one of the most trying times of our lives. It is no secret that there is a child care crisis in Minnesota. There are many factors contributing to this crisis, including licensing regulations and unfair treatment by the Department of Human Services. At the same time there have been few solutions offered to address the cost of child care for families. We currently hold a 4 Star Parent Aware Rating, and while that affords some families economic assistance, there are income guideline restrictions with this funding. The same is true for the Child Care Assistance Program. I had hoped this session that many of the bills and amendments passed by both the House and Senate to address both the financial and regulatory portions of the child care crisis would be signed into law. But that did not happen. Child Care Assistance Rates and guidelines were not adopted, and as it stands currently, the payment rates for these programs are still based on 2011 market rates. We are currently, and have been for quite some time, out of compliance as state with the Federal Child Care Block Grant which states that the market rate must be within the last 3 years. If the updated rates are adopted in 2019, they will not go into effect until 2020, at which point we will be nearly 10 years behind. The issue is that these rates are considered by many to be what the average cost of child care should be, yet the age of these rates and how they are determined are not readily explained or provided.
All of this brings me to a very hard decision that I have held off on as long as possible. As referenced in your contract, new rates were to go into effect at Here We Grow in January. I held off and did my best to advocate for changes this session along with many other agencies, providers and legislators, but ultimately at the end of the session as a state we are out of compliance with the federal tax code, and the Child Care Assistance Program rates were not adjusted. This has waves of implications. And we are experiencing them.
At the same time as these state level issues are occurring, there are many things occurring locally in Greater Mankato. There is a workforce shortage, and at the same time there is shortage of child care. In order to attract employees, some employers are raising their wages and offering better benefits, yet still we do not have child care providers entering the field. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the testimony heard this session from providers reveals the internal issues with DHS. The regulations are extreme and the system has punitive punishments that include great risk. Under the current law, an Administrative Law Judge does not have the final say if we appeal an action by the Department of Human Services, rather the Commissioner of the Department of Human Services only views their finding as an opinion. An analogy I use is as follows: Imagine you get a speeding ticket and are arrested for a DUI. You go to court and the judge finds your toxicology report clean and that in fact you were not speeding. Yet the police officer, not the judge, would then have the final say. We are unprotected in this state and aside from appealing the Commissioner in a higher court, which is a great expense, we as providers have nothing to gain and everything to lose. The compelling testimony heard this session from providers coming forward to share their stories about what has happened to them when choosing to care for infants is terrifying. If a child has a sock that falls off in the crib, it is a safe sleep violation and the provider is subject to a $200 fine. Any repeat violations, which do not have to be identical, can result in a conditional license. I sought legal council and the advice given to me was that anyone who goes into child care does so with a great legal risk. It is not the families you have to worry about, it is the Department of Human Services of which we, as providers, have limited legal recourse against.
I understand that this is a great deal of information, and I am trying my best to not overwhelm anyone, however the reason behind the child care crisis is multifold. One good thing that occurred from this session is exempting us as providers from an additional $10,000 worth of training on top of our 42 hours a year. One other protection that was vetoed by the Governor, was an amendment restricting the power of the Department of Human Services. That was unfortunate for a number of reasons.
I share all of this because I am at a crossroads. Our community at Here We Grow is comprised of families; families with children and families who are employees. I am between a rock and a hard place because I feel as though I have to choose. With the cost of living on the rise in our area and other employment options that pay greater than we currently do, some with benefits, the reality is that I cannot care for my employees, who I consider family, as well as other employers. Yet on the other hand, I do not want to harm those who attend Here We Grow, because they are also part of our family. No matter what decision I make, I stand to lose family members. I have had many conversations with owners of other centers who are in similar positions. I spent sleepless nights praying that something would give, but it’s the perfect storm.
Our environment is unique in that all of our teachers are full-time, with credentials that far exceed the state minimums as well as the ratios. If I choose to cut teachers, I cut the support system that creates a less stressful environment for those who remain, which directly impacts children. There are a number of studies that tie mental health of providers to the development of children. So here I sit, writing this letter, that I’m terrified to author.
I am asking your help in finding creative solutions to both providing a living wage for employees while also keeping tuition reasonable for families. This Fall we will need to adjust our rates. Center providers across the state are trying to figure out to find balance in a system that is failing. Until that time, in order to keep up with the cost of prices for insurance, food, and small raises for employees, I have to make the hard decision to raise tuition 5%. This change will go into effect June 18th with an increase of an average of $0.22 per hour, based on an average attendance of 50 hours, which totals $11 per week. I welcome any suggestions on how to keep tuition low, while still retaining quality teachers and maintaining low ratios which is critical for children’s development. Tuition will need to be reassessed this Fall as a number of factors shift in our area once again, the biggest of which is the cost of housing and access to health care.
For those who are awaiting infant care, I am doing the best I can to make that come to fruition. The reason behind that specific shortage are the extreme amount of regulations that hinder child development and our ability to partner appropriately with families. We are currently awaiting the final loan release for equipment. I am hopeful this will occur soon so we can move forward with licensing.
I apologize for the length of this letter, but I wanted to fully explain how I came to my decision. I ask you to consider attending a Regional Town Hall that has been scheduled for June 6th at 6:30pm at South Central College in North Mankato. Elected officials need to hear from families. I hope to see you there.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I am currently finalizing our annual report, which is not required, but I provide as part of my philosophy that transparency is always the best option.
Thank-you for your support and for choosing to include your family as part of our community.
Elizabeth Bangert, MS