Big Sky child care center struggling to house, retain and find the right teachers
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
Five more teachers and four months of time.
That’s the minimum of what it would take for Big Sky’s only licensed early childhood education center to continue providing child care on Fridays, according to executive director Mariel Butan. She noted that those changes would not address the underlying issues that caused the problem in the first place.
On the afternoon of Tuesday Oct. 11, Butan and center director Laura MacPherson held a town hall meeting at BASE to discuss the recent challenges not only at Morningstar, but in the child care industry. Butan and MacPherson gave a slideshow presentation to share statistics from both national and state child care industries and at Morningstar, helping to frame the announcement that within the next month, working parents will need to find another option to care for their preschool aged children. In attendance were a handful of concerned parents; some voiced frustration, some shared gratitude and some expressed both.
“This community needs more than Morningstar can––or has been able to––provide,” Butan explained. Butan and MacPherson said their mental and physical wellbeing has been affected negatively by this ongoing struggle of providing an essential service to the working population. The center is the lone provider of care for children under 3 years old in a 40-mile radius, and it currently enrolls 45 children with more than 20 on a waitlist. With one fewer day of service, working parents will need to bridge the child care gap every Friday.
Morningstar received over $400,000 in late February from an American Rescue Plan Act Childcare Stabilization Grant and another $400,000 in August from a Montana ARPA grant plus a $100,000 corporate match from the Lone Mountain Land Company. Still, Butan and MacPherson emphasized that this issue cannot be fixed by grants alone, as the bigger challenge revolves around hiring professionals willing to stay with Morningstar long-term.
According to data presented at the meeting, the average tenure of a new hire has been and remains low, which reflects challenges facing the childcare industry both locally in Big Sky and nationally. Of the 13 teachers hired thus far in 2022, only seven remain. Butan called it, “heartbreaking to see and unacceptable in an educational environment.”
The directors argue that pay is not the issue. Morningstar pays an average annual salary of $47,663 which nearly doubles the state average of $27,705 and beats the higher national average by roughly $11,700. The learning center is open 45 hours a week, not including time spent by staff cleaning the facility and commuting. In recent interviews to pinpoint the factors of retention, teachers have reflected burnout, long hours and workload without mention of housing or pay.
“You wind up losing good people because they can make more money doing an easier job somewhere else,” Butan told EBS.
Still, data shows that housing is a factor: of 34 hired since May 2021, 17 remain and 14 of them live in Big Sky. Of the 17 employees who left, 12 did not live in Big Sky, or they moved out before leaving the nonprofit. MacPherson has conducted four interviews in the last three weeks, and all candidates need housing.
“That is the number one make-or-break if they can take the job,” MacPherson said. “And we don’t have more housing at this time.”
Butan added that Morningstar is at further risk of losing current teachers, some of whom have asked about employee housing availability.
“Even those teachers know that they have a sunset on their current living situations, and they’re trying to get into employee housing as soon as possible,” Butan said.
This past January, a similar decision was made to consolidate Morningstar’s staffing needs into a four-day schedule. According to Butan, it enabled a greater degree of reliability for those four days, which is a primary reason for the upcoming change back to four days. She described the recent trend of sending messages to involved parents during the evening, asking families to volunteer to keep their child home the next day so that Morningstar could legally operate with the number of staff available.
“With the number of teachers that we currently have, if one person calls out sick or is taking a vacation day––which they are totally entitled to have and take––administrators are in the classrooms,” Butan said.
For the class size and enrollment that Morningstar currently has, they need 13 to 14 people per day. They have 11 teachers on staff at the moment.
One parent questioned why a 40 to 50-hour workweek is considered such a challenge in Big Sky, where long hours are the norm.
“I hear you talking about school and teachers, but this is childcare,” they said. “So are you moving from a childcare [facility] to a school, and you want higher credentials for childcare?”
“All of our teachers do have to have a standard credential to work, and they are considered teachers per the Montana early childhood registry,” MacPherson answered. “It’s a standard across the board that they must have a certain level of education to qualify as a teacher in our childcare center. And we are a licensed Montana state licensed childcare center. So yes, a 50 to 55 hour workweek is standard in Big Sky, but those people are not working with young children. The nature of [the childcare] industry is very emotionally and physically challenging.”
Another parent voiced their struggle with this ongoing situation, adding a statement of gratitude:
“You are two of the most talented individuals we could possibly have in this position. You’re going to guide us through this and find partnerships and find a solution. I feel grateful because I know how hard this is, and I just want to say thank you.”
Fifty-five minutes into this challenging discussion, the parents and caregivers applauded MacPherson and Butan after hearing those words.
After the meeting, Butan spoke with EBS about her frustration with having to make this decision. She said she recognizes and regrets that parents will struggle to work and be with family, and that it was a difficult decision to make.
“One small but mighty nonprofit cannot keep up with the demand in this community,” she said.
Paid substitute teaching opportunities
Although they prefer to retain a sustainable long-term staff as an education center, Butan said Morningstar is hiring substitute teachers and will pay $350 per day. If candidates are a good fit and pass a background check, they will be expected to complete a four-hour CPR training course and 14 hours of orientation coursework.
This article was corrected on Nov. 2 to provide fuller context around the issues facing childcare in Big Sky.