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Morningstar lands $400,000 stabilization grant

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By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – Morningstar Learning Center received a major boost last week when the school announced it received a near half-million dollars in federal funding.

The $408,742 American Rescue Plan Act Child Care Stabilization Grant, or ARPA, was awarded Feb. 23 and will help stabilize operations as the daycare looks to long-term solutions for staffing and employee housing according to MLC representatives.

“I was elated to find out that we had received that grant and I was so proud of Mariel pushing through with it and I think she’s an excellent grant writer,” said Stephanie Kissell, president of Morningstar’s Board of Directors, of MLC’s Executive Director Marial Butan. “I appreciate her tenacity with how she tracks things down … Her follow through is pretty outstanding.”

Butan applied for the grant in October 2021 and hopes to use the money to work toward big-picture goals that will alleviate a staffing shortage that’s plagued Morningstar for years and was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The daycare had to shut its doors on Fridays starting in February.

“My concern, even when applying for this grant, was not, ‘Will Morningstar make it through the year?’” Butan said. “The concern really with the way things are going with staffing and housing is: ‘Is Morningstar going to make it through the next several years; the next decade?’”

According to the award letter from Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office, 171 child-care programs have closed in the state since the start of the pandemic. As of November 2021, the letter said, 1,047 child-care providers currently operate in the state and Morningstar is the only year-round provider in Big Sky. 

Morningstar preschoolers smile in the sun on a spring nature walk. PHOTO BY SAVANNAH HORWOOD 

Housing is the largest hurdle to hiring, according to Butan, so the organization is focused on how it can secure workforce lodging and draw in enough staff to continue serving families.

With the first of four checks in hand, Morningstar has contracted Bozeman-based 45 Architecture to complete a feasibility study to determine the best use for the lot adjacent to the current facility that Morningstar purchased in 2018. 

According to Butan, Morningstar is considering two uses for the lot: build a new child-care facility and convert the current building to housing or build new employee housing. 

“To have the opportunity to make something like that happen and be a shining example of what child care can be in Big Sky … [is] super exciting,” she said.

The study conducted by 45 Architecture will assess the facility’s current assets and determine how best the daycare can move forward. 

“Morningstar really desires to serve our local population of families and in order to do that well we need to have our research done and we need to have data backing up our decisions,” Kissell said. “That really drives home the act of doing a feasibility study and collecting all of that data.”

In the interim, Morningstar recently signed a lease for a two-bedroom condo in the Meadow Village, which can serve as employee housing. Butan said she updated current job postings stating that housing is available, and already has several promising applications. 

A total of $61,268,171 was made available to eligible child-care providers through the ARPA grant according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. As of March 25, DPHHS said more than 400 awards have been made in the state of Montana and the average award is $75,320. 

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