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Morningstar restructures staffing, modifies scholarships

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Children at Morningstar practice their fine motor skills by stacking and building with blocks. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHANIE KISSELL

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – After a tumultuous turnover in staff and dealing with a global pandemic, Morningstar Learning Center is looking for new staff and restructuring its finances.

Currently, Morningstar is the only full-time daycare or preschool in the Big Sky community for infants to 5-year-olds, and its vision is to provide affordable childcare for families in the community. The center’s nonprofit status allows it to offer low-cost services by supplementing operating costs with private donations.

Morningstar offers locally employed families a $10 discount per child, per day through the Tuition Reduction Plan funded by the Big Sky Resort Area District. In addition, Morningstar offers a Family Assistance scholarship, to which families can apply and receive additional funds outside of tuition reduction. These two programs will soon be rolled together into one scholarship application process, according to Stephanie Kissell, secretary of Morningstar’s board of directors.

Morningstar has remained open throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and while the virus presented challenges and reduced classroom size, Kissell says a lack of staffing also contributed to issues that arose over the past year. 

“In 2019, we had 100-percent staff turnover and those trends continued in 2020,” she said. 

Currently, Morningstar is again operating at full capacity and Kissell says the only restriction remains staffing shortages since the organization must adhere to state-mandated teacher-to-student ratios.

As a result, the learning center is restructuring by splitting the executive director role into two positions—center director and executive director—and thanks to a Big Sky Relief grant, Morningstar can now offer competitive wages.

“I came up with a communitywide wage-and-benefits comparison spreadsheet to determine and compare other similar jobs in Big Sky,” said Kissell, who was involved in requesting the grant for Morningstar. We’re looking at the same pool of workers with the same credentials and seeing the discrepancy between entry-level positions in those jobs versus what we were paying.” 

After running the numbers, which she called “shocking,” Kissell presented a final determination to the Big Sky Relief advisory committee outlining the amount Morningstar needs to pay employees in order to provide a livable wage in Big Sky. The center director position is currently being advertised with a base salary of $60,000.

Morningstar applied to Big Sky Relief for a grant in September 2020, which started a conversation around the center’s sustainability and its services. Then in October 2020, it submitted another request for funds that Big Sky Relief granted with the understanding that five short-term goals would be accomplished.

“We recognize that equitable access to quality childcare is really part of a community’s infrastructure,” said Ciara Wolfe, who sat on Big Sky Relief’s advisory committee at the time Morningstar submitted the grant applications and who, last November, became vice president of philanthropy at Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. “The childcare industry was so under resourced prior to the pandemic and it’s also been one of the industries that’s been hit the hardest due to this pandemic.” 

Wolfe also stressed that providing affordable childcare is a national issue, not just a Big Sky issue.

After receiving the grant, the Morningstar board split into subcommittees in order to meet the goals within a six-month time frame, Kissell said.

One subcommittee is focused on ensuring that Morningstar is a financially sustainable operation and is seeking input on the scholarship programs and a tuition increase. Historically, the learning center has raised tuition every two years, according to Kissell, but after revamping the wage structure it would need to increase tuition by 32 percent to cover operating costs which were previously covered by tuition revenue. That increase would be cost prohibitive to families, Kissell said. 

As part of the financial revamp, BSRAD is helping Morningstar restructure the Tuition Reduction project based on a sliding scale, meaning a flat rate will not apply to every family and tuition assistance will be need-based, according to Kissell.

“Resort tax along with the foundations, in partnership with Morningstar, have been fairly actively trying to figure out how we can collectively help the organization move forward for future success and supporting them financially to do so,” said Daniel Bierschwale, the executive director of BSRAD.

According to Kissell, the hope is to fill the center director position in the next six months and hire for three open teaching positions. Hiring a center director will help Morningstar implement short-term and long-term goals, she said.

Results from an August 2020 Family Survey that Morningstar showed that 63 percent of respondents said they would quit their jobs or move if they couldn’t afford childcare. 

Currently, Morningstar has a second survey out to the community—the Community Youth Care and Program Needs Assessment—which is a collaboration with Big Sky Discovery Academy, the Big Sky School District, Big Sky Community Organization and the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce.

“We want to stay open,” Kissell said. “We want to create avenues that meet the needs of our families and offer them quality, comprehensive childcare and early learning education services.”

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