CARROLL — Community support has kept the Carroll Area Child Care Center and Preschool thriving for the past four decades in this rural city in west-central Iowa.
“Carroll does understand that if this place were not here, there would be nowhere for kids to go,” said Nikki Heuton, the center’s executive director.
If parents needed a reminder of that, they got one in 2014 when a broken water pipe flooded most of the building with about two inches of standing water, and the center closed for a week in the lead-up to Christmas. There were about 170 children — from infants to five-year-olds — who abruptly needed a new place to stay during the workdays.
“It’s kind of a huge deal,” Brittany Schramm, a Carroll mother of two children at the center, said at the time. “It’s hard.”
Schramm and her husband had to alternate vacation days from work to tend their children.
The center reopened with the help of insurance money. That support has allowed the center to flourish. It now cares for more than 200 children from 110 families, and there’s a waiting list of nearly 100 who want to enroll.
When the center sought to renovate its outdoor playground last year, it paid for the more-than-$80,000 project with fundraisers, donations and grant money.
Even with that level of community buy-in, running a successful child care center in rural Iowa is a balancing act to keep tuition affordable and wages for employees as attractive as possible.
The center receives some financial support from the city of Carroll, Carroll County, the United Way of Carroll and private donors, but tuition — the money parents pay to enroll their children — pays for about 90 percent of the center’s more than $900,000 annual expenditures.
The tuition cost per week for a child younger than 2 is $183 at the Carroll center, compared with the state average of $194, as calculated by the United Ways of Iowa. To keep tuition that low, the hourly wage the center pays its teachers is “frustrating,” said Heuton, its director. Lead teachers for each room make $10 per hour — about $21,000 per year — and their assistants earn $8.50.
“It’s a job that many people want to do, but it has a wage that is not livable,” Heuton said. “And there are no insurance benefits.”
As a consequence, the turnover rate among the teachers and, especially, assistant teachers is high. In a recent year, 18 of the 30 people the center hired left their jobs. The center employs about 45 full- and part-time workers. Heuton said the center attracts recent high school or college graduates for those jobs — mostly women — who tend to leave in their mid-20s when they are no longer covered by their parents’ health insurance.
The not-for-profit center was launched in 1970s and in 1996 moved to its current, expanded location, a former Fareway grocery store in downtown Carroll. It offers all-day care for young children and part-time care for preschool and school-aged children up to 10 years old.
Given the long waiting list for families, center leaders have contemplated expanding again, but there’s no more room at the current site, and, Heuton wondered, “How big can we be and still effectively care for children?”
The center has been an important element of Carroll’s economic success in the past decades, given the town’s outsized number of large employers for a town of about 9,900, said Shannon Landauer, executive director of the Carroll Chamber of Commerce. The town’s top 10 employers have more than 3,000 workers.
“The key right now is quality of place,” Landauer said. “People want to find a place to raise their families.”
Trisha Christensen, an early childhood adviser for four western Iowa counties, including Carroll, said the Carroll center’s success stands out among those other counties that struggle with a lack of child care options. It’s such a problem in Stuart in Adair County, about 30 miles west of the Des Moines metro area, that city leaders are scrambling to open a child care center, in part to stem the outflow of students to neighboring school districts where these is better child care.
“Carroll is lucky,” she said.
Indeed, young professionals in town agree. Teresa Friesen, 32, an instructor of human services, sociology and psychology for the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Carroll, said the center is one of the reasons why she and her husband Corey, a physical therapist, choose to live there.
“We don’t have to choose between excellent care for our children and fulfilling our personal and family goals,” she said. “We have great caretakers and great jobs, and that is such a gift.