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State awards more than $400,000 to Morningstar for child care services

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Lone Mountain Land Company adds $100,000 to state grant

By Gabrielle Gasser ASSOCIATE EDITOR

BIG SKY – Morningstar Learning Center, the only full-time, year-round child-care facility in Big Sky, was recently awarded over half a million dollars intended to support the expansion of child care availability for Montana families.

The Child Care Innovation and Infrastructure Grant, made available through American Rescue Plan Act funds and the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, distributed $18 million to 31 grantees in Montana. Morningstar received $413,904 from the pot as well as a $100,000 match from Lone Mountain Land Company for a total of $513,904. To date, Morningstar has been awarded over $800,000 from the child care stabilization and innovation ARPA grants.

To receive the innovation grant, a 10 percent corporate match was required. Morningstar requested $1 million from the state, the maximum grant award. LMLC agreed to provide the match for the original request and decided to honor that commitment even when Morningstar received less than it had requested. Now, Morningstar will use those funds over the next two years to support its ongoing efforts to expand and improve its child care services.

“This grant is going to help us tackle this from all angles to create more spots for the youngest kids in our community,” said Mariel Butan, executive director of Morningstar. 

Montana is one of only six states that does not offer public pre-kindergarten and right now, there are 21 kids on Morningstar’s waitlist. This year, Big Sky School District began offering a 4K, or early kindergarten, program which allows the school to enroll 20 4-year-olds under exceptional circumstances, taking them off of Morningstar’s plate.

“Big Sky is, by definition, a child care desert because we are serving less than a third of the children under the age of 5,” said Hannah Richardson, executive director of Spanish Peaks Community Foundation.

In addition to a lack of child care availability, Big Sky is an expensive place to get child care. A typical family in Gallatin County spends over 25 percent of their income on child care for one infant and one toddler according to data from Child Care Connections, a Bozeman-based nonprofit that serves as a resource for child care services. This is well over the federal definition of affordability for child care, which is 7 percent of a family’s income.

Richardson helped Butan write and submit the grant for the June 7 deadline. The grant awards were announced on Aug. 9 and both Butan and Richardson said it was a competitive process. Out of 53 applicants, Butan said, 22 were not funded at all.

“This is a huge win because I think the state is really recognizing that Big Sky…We really do have some social equity issues, and we need to provide some more infrastructure and support for our workforce,” Richardson said.

Butan said Morningstar will first focus on expanding its current services and staff while ensuring it continues to offer high quality child care. She added that efforts to hire more staff, pay competitive wages and secure employee housing will also continue, as well as some much-needed work on the current building which wasn’t originally designed to be  child care facility. As part of these efforts, LMLC has leased two apartments to MLC for employee housing.

“Step one is having there be child care that we can count on in this community,” Butan said. “And then we also need to make sure that it is great child care so that kids are having a wonderful and enriching experience.”

Both Richardson and Butan emphasized that a lack of child care affects the workforce and makes it hard for employers to find and retain staff. With this in mind, a solution to affordability issues currently being considered by Butan and the wider coalition of individuals and organizations known as the CHILD, or Cooperative Holistic Innovative Local Design, task force is an employer subsidized model. 

The employer subsidized model could take several different forms, but Richardson said it would serve as a recruitment tool for employers and would support the workforce as well as affordable child care. 

“With these grant funds, the thing that’s most important to us—beyond just how can we best serve the community immediately—is how can we look to the future and say, ‘what is going to best serve this community in the long term?’” Butan said.

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