Olson, Melbye visit school-based child care center in Benson

    Is it possible that the Crookston School District could team up with the City of Crookston, agencies like Tri-Valley Opportunity Council and the local business/manufacturing community to open a child care center on school property under the district umbrella?

    Whether a casual observer or a keenly interested stakeholder, one would have to put the odds against such a widespread collaboration coming together to make such an ambitious initiative a reality. But stacked odds didn’t stop Crookston Mayor Wayne Melbye and School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson from traveling recently to Benson, Minnesota, where a child care center opened in an old portion of the school several years ago and, after early struggles, has found its footing, so much so that voters in that community recently approved a ballot initiative to build a new facility for the center.

    Melbye and Olson made the trip in large part because of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. During a recent visit to Crookston that included an informal roundtable discussion of pressing local issues, the community’s shortage of licensed child care slots dominated the conversation. Klobuchar mentioned the child care center initiative in Benson, and strongly encouraged local officials to go and check it out.

How it all works

    Melbye and Olson explained to the CHEDA Board of Directors Tuesday what the Benson child care center collaboration is all about.

    “It was quite an outfit,” Melbye said of the school-based child care center in the school district around two-thirds the size of the Crookston district.

    The center, with around 23 children, is housed in an old portion of the high school. The school pays for utilities and offers other in-kind contributions, but the center is staffed by its own people. High school students periodically go to the center to help with the children there, but Olson said it’s important to note that the students, when they help out, do not count as official staff who could potentially drive down costs by easing the number of actual child care providers needed to be with the children, whether they’re infants or preschool-aged.

    The City of Benson is part of the collaboration, as are various community agencies and local businesses and manufacturers. Olson and Melbye said it lost a lot of money in its first year, around $80,000, but as slots have been filled it has crept up closer to being in the black. But, Olson added, the business model never envisioned the Benson center as a money-maker.

    “I think it’s important to have that (fact) out there if we discuss this, because it’s incredibly expensive to run infant care, which is our biggest need,” Olson said. “You make more money on the three and four year olds because of the smaller child/staff ratio. But there are lots of regulations. It’s very different, a home day care versus a commercial center, when it comes to regulations. We would need to partner with someone who knew what they were doing so we can make sure we’re checking all the boxes.”

    That “someone” could be an agency like Tri-Valley Opportunity Council.

    Momentum has built so much in Benson that voters in the district recently approved a ballot initiative to construct a new facility for the center.

    “The community is definitely buying-in,” Olson said.

    The Benson center is under the school district’s Community Education umbrella. The district takes general education money and funnels into Community Ed for the center. The money includes contributions from the various partners as well.

    Both Olson and Melbye said the next step is to determine just how large a Crookston child care center would be, as far as the number of children it would serve. A location would need to obviously be found, and partners willing to contribute would need to be identified.

    “We have to be creative,” the mayor said. “If you get manufacturers to buy a percentage of slots for their own folks, how do you do that? Even if you don’t have 30 or 50 kids actually there, you want to make sure the slots are paid for.”

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said a child care committee focused on reducing the local shortage continues to meet. “Everything you’re saying is supported by the things we have been researching,” he said, adding that local manufacturers have been receptive to talk of them contributing to a child care center that, in turn, benefits them by easing child care stress burdening their current workforce, and potential future workforce.

    Everyone agrees, too, that there is a delicate balance that needs to be maintained with current child care providers in Crookston.

    “It’s important to include existing day cares in this to show that we’re not competing with them, but we’re working to fill an existing need,” Olson said. “The idea would not be to build a center, then draw business away from people who are taxpayers and are already doing this in the community.”

    One can expect the discussions to only continue to ramp up, whether or not a potential center is housed on school property or not. When the Crookston City Council recently approved an allocation of $350,000 to CHEDA in 2019 to be spent on various strategic economic development initiatives, exploring the opening of a child care center in Crookston was a big part of the conversation that led up to the council approving the funding for CHEDA.