The Missoula YMCA has attempted to expand child care programs in recent years.

United Way of Missoula County hopes to launch a pilot program that could help meet the region’s need for child care opportunities without imposing the cost directly on area taxpayers.

Missoula Childcare Advantage, envisioned as a public-private partnership, must overcome a number of hurdles before being operational. But if the pilot effort is successful, it could establish a new public-private child care model in Missoula, according to United Way’s Grace Decker.

“We have worked at United Way for three years and much longer through community collaborations to find new solutions to the shortage and cost of childcare in the community,” Decker said. “We now have an opportunity to do something that we believe holds great promise for supporting new child care businesses in a pilot, and others in the community after the pilot has proven successful. .”

Child care has become a national challenge with no easy remedy. Congress let the expanded child tax credit expire last December, while local efforts have tackled the issue with mixed results.

Venture capital-backed began making inroads in Missoula in 2019 with several home-based child care businesses. Last December, others also came together to form the Montana Early Learning Center – a co-operative enterprise based at the old Cold Springs School.

But Decker said the school is now empty and the city’s child care needs have not been met.

“Child care is a pressing community issue – a crisis that goes hand in hand with housing,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the local United Way. “But right now it’s not in anyone’s particular portfolio. We want to build this into the ground as proof of durability.

As proposed, United Way — with a letter of support from the city and county of Missoula — plans to apply for a state grant to cover the cost of renovating parts of Cold Spring School to accommodate six to 10 businesses of child care.

It would also establish a shared business services model to help child care providers within the network manage enrollment, availability, licensing, accounting and other administrative matters. Business support has proven effective elsewhere in helping a child care business improve its stability and bottom line.

“Commercial shared services have been used to make their operations more effective and efficient,” Decker said. “But child care in Montana is not well networked. We don’t have networks of childcare companies that can come together to do that.

This part of the proposal would require funding, and the cost projections and where the funding would come from have not been settled. One source would likely include members of large employers like area hospitals, government, technology and other sectors that have employees with children.

“Major employers know how difficult their workforce is finding child care,” Decker said. “It’s a benefit to the business in the pilot and a benefit to the community because we now have this middle ground to support businesses differently and give employers the benefits they can provide to their employees if they are members.”

Support from others could be sought, including a request to Missoula County Public Schools for a rent reduction to use the Cold Springs school. Possible financial support from the city and county could also come into play.

Such funding would help pay the daycare workers, who Decker said should earn between $21 and $26 an hour. But she said the fundraising recipe remains a work in progress.

“Membership fees will help support the operation of the entity, and we hope that a braided nonprofit public funding source will support the staff,” Decker said.

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