Offers additional $100,000 in matching funds

BIG SKY – Walk into Morningstar Learning Center, and you’ll see – and hear – it’s a happy place.

When the preschoolers arrive in the morning, music is playing. The kids tromp upstairs, wash their hands, write their names on a sign-in sheet and put away their lunches. Then they have free play before morning circle. There, they talk about the day of the week and the weather, and then do an activity based on a weekly theme. Last week, while learning about the human body, they sang “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.”

Downstairs at Morningstar is a space for younger children. Their activities are similar, but geared toward toddlers and babies.

The learning center, which opened in April 2006, purchased its current building at 659 Spruce Cone Drive in September 2011. Previously, it had always rented – although the goal “from day one,” says board member Steven Rager, “was to have a debt-free building, so we could concentrate on lower tuition, better teacher pay and scholarships.”

A $200,000 donation from the Rapier Family Foundation, announced in early November, puts Morningstar on track. The gift, meant to help the nonprofit childcare center pay off its new building, reduces the principal balance on Morningstar’s mortgage by just over two thirds.

“It’s an incredible situation for Morningstar and for the community as a whole,” said Morningstar board member Tracy Jacobsen. “Without a community-provided daycare and preschool in Big Sky, you limit the opportunity for employment growth.”

The foundation also offered Morningstar an additional $100,000 – if the organization can rally to match that amount in the next year. “It comes with a little bit of a double edged sword,” Jacobsen said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

The Rapiers’ $100,000 would go toward the final mortgage payment. The second $100,000 raised would go toward teacher benefits, education technology, a food program and lowering tuition, Jacobsen said.

Rager thinks the match is very attainable, pointing out how the community worked together to build the new high school. “This is very specific where they money is going and what it’s going to accomplish,” he said.

When Morningstar bought the building and had to remodel it, “there was an outpour of donations of physical labor,” Rager said. “There was a tremendous amount of support for Morningstar in the community, and we’re excited to be able to follow through.”

Morningstar still plans to use the $24,000 it received from the 2012 Big Sky Resort Tax allocation for this year’s monthly mortgage payments.

There are other day care facilities in Big Sky – at Big Sky and Moonlight Basin resorts, as well as a Montessori preschool – but Morningstar is the only licensed childcare provider and preschool.

The learning center’s capacity is 43 children; it can now accept infants, which it could not in its previous space. The number of families using the center varies between 40 and 50, said Morningstar administrator Lindsie Hurlbut, one of 12 staff.

A blanket tuition decrease this year, plus a new ‘season pass’ program, lowered the cost 10 to 20 percent for most of those families.

Having affordable childcare is key to community, say Rager and Jacobson, both Big Sky business owners.

“Employing people who need childcare, not having friends and family move away because they couldn’t afford preschool – we can eliminate that as a factor,” Rager said. “As a business person and as a family person, I think that’s how you build a community: keeping people here.”

Not only does Big Sky have the new high school, Rager notes, but there has also been discussion about a building a new elementary school. “The early childhood [education] aspect is so important, even before preschool. These families need to stay around to fill these classrooms, too.”
Kym and George Rapier, of the Rapier Family Foundation, moved to Big Sky from Texas in 2011.

“We’re on our way,” Jacobson said. “Hopefully the doors are opening for progress and better change for our teachers and tuition.”