IOWA FALLS — When Carrie Kube is out and about — shuttling her children to activities or going to the grocery store — child care is on her mind.
“I’m thinking about it all the time,” said Kube, director of the Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area Board and a member of the Hardin County Child Care Task Force. “I see a building and I think maybe that would be a good child care center.”
Kube — and other child care, education and business leaders in north-central Iowa’s Hardin County — have been meeting since 2017 to address the question of how to address the county’s child care needs.
According to data collected by Iowa Child Care Resource and Referral, the number of state-registered child care spaces in Hardin County — population 17,000 — fell from 1,024 in 2012 to 781 in 2017. The county — as with many Iowa communities — is classified as a “child care desert,” which means that for every three children who need care, there is only one spot available.
The problem was exacerbated last fall, when Iowa Falls’ only child care center closed.
Riverbend Child Care opened the doors of its converted two-story house in 1980. Last summer, Iowa Falls’ mayor and city manager were asked to join the not-for-profit’s board of directors, which had dwindled to just one person. When they sat down to assess the situation, they found a mess.
“At the first board meeting we attended, they weren’t going to be able to make payroll that week,” said City Manager Jody Anderson. “We got a short-term loan from one of the banks and I was hopeful we could turn things around, but they just didn’t have the income needed to meet even a third of the expenses.”
While the center’s monthly income was as much as $3,000, its expenses were about $10,000.
It was when Anderson joined Riverbend’s board that he began to understand how a center’s closure can affect an entire town.
“I became a lot more aware of how not having a day care center — even though we have very good in-home providers — really limits a new person’s options in a community,” said Anderson, who knows of at least one family that moved away because of the center’s closure.
Riverbend Child Care offered services that many in-home providers in Iowa Falls do not — it was open longer hours, it accepted state aid, and it had enough space to accommodate families with multiple children.
Those are some of the reasons that in-home child care provider Chaeli Gerrish believes Iowa Falls needs a replacement, though she takes issue with the town’s “desert” designation.
“We all agree there’s a need for another center,” said Gerrish, who is starting her 28th year as a child care provider. “They can handle the multiples, the coming and going, the part-timers. The majority of home providers have to have full-time spots to make it work financially.”
Gerrish — and a number of other in-home providers in Iowa Falls — have challenged the data published by Child Care Resource and Referral, or CCR&R. The agency’s numbers only include child care providers who are listed with the state — either as registered or non-registered providers. The providers who choose not to notify the state of their services are not listed with the agency.
While the Iowa Department of Human Services shows just seven child care providers in Iowa Falls, Gerrish has compiled a list of 19 people providing care in town.
“I think in our community right now a lot of the providers are upset with CCR&R because we feel like they’ve been misrepresenting us,” said Gerrish, who is registered and listed with the Iowa Department of Human Services.
The non-registered providers — some of whom used to be registered — said they don’t see a benefit to jumping through the registration hoops.
Tammy Cooper has been caring for children in her home for 17 years, first as a registered home and now as non-registered. As funding to CCR&R was reduced and services were cut, she no longer saw a reason to open her home to inspectors, attend classes and comply with rules that require fire evacuation plans and “No Smoking” signs in her home and her vehicles.
“When you have to deal with government regulations, it takes some of the joy out of it,” Cooper said.
Cooper and Gerrish said parents hardly ever ask them whether they’re registered with the state.
“I take pride that I’m registered, but in the community it doesn’t matter to people,” Gerrish said. “They don’t know what it means.”
Despite the disagreements, nearly everyone agrees that Iowa Falls needs a child care center. People like Mark Buschkamp — executive director of the Iowa Falls Area Development Corporation — insist it’s not a family issue or a provider issue, it’s a community issue. And without adequate child care, the community will suffer.
“Everybody is looking for people. Everybody has openings,” said Buschkamp, who ranks workforce shortage as the No. 1 obstacle to growing local business. “You’re trying to prospect under every rock to find a person to fill a position. One of the things we can do is provide decent day care so that parents can enter the workforce and they can feel secure about someone taking good care of their kids.”
Buschkamp’s work to recruit and retain employers puts him in touch with business leaders every day. He said headlines about Riverbend Child Care Center’s closing caught their attention.
“I think that was eye-opening,” he said of the closing. “I think many people began to realize, ‘Wow, what do we do about this?’ And also — not just who’s already here — but how do you attract people to your community if you don’t have day care?”
The Hardin County Child Care Task Force is trying to solve that problem, but they can’t do it alone.
“I hear a lot of people talking about it,” Kube said of the child care issue.
“People have got ideas and they’re passionate about it, but they don’t want to see it forward. We need people who want to be part of the solution, not just talk about the problem.”