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Childcare openings fall far short of demand in Macon

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale knew the county had a problem when two young working mothers contacted him directly following the closure of a daycare and unable to find openings elsewhere.

“They were saying ‘We don’t have anywhere to send our children, so what are we supposed to do?’” Beale said.

Beale chartered a committee in February of 2009 to explore the causes of Macon County’s suspected childcare shortage and last week the group released its findings.

The verdict? Macon County doesn’t have enough affordable, quality childcare, particularly for those under 2 years old.

Chuck Sutton –– executive director of Macon Program for Progress, a federally funded nonprofit that provides childcare for 315 children –– chaired the committee. Sutton said he and the other people with experience in childcare had a strong feeling about what they would find when they began the study.

“I think there were several of us that had the feeling there was an existing problem but we couldn’t put numbers to it,” Sutton said.

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In rural areas, the low population density makes it difficult for daycare providers to turn a profit because the costs of hiring licensed personnel and paying for insurance are too high. Meanwhile, for working parents paying $125 a week per child for daycare, throw in a mortgage and car payment and they can barely afford groceries.

“You can’t really drive the price down because that’s what it costs to care for a child properly,” Sutton said. “So the providers and the parents are working against each other.”

The study, using 2008 population statistics, showed there were 1,147 children under 2 years old in Macon County. Working from the assumption that half were cared for by a stay-at-home parent or other family member, the study pegged demand in the county at 574 slots for infants and toddlers.

But the current capacity is well short — only 210 spaces, the majority of which are reserved only for low-income families. That means over 300 families are stuck on waiting lists or are sending their children to unlicensed providers.

The county enlisted the resources of a long list of state and regional agencies in the study –– including Department of Health and Human Services and the Southwestern Child Development Commission –– and amassed a thick volume of findings that pointed to the reality that good childcare is an important part of early development.

Macon Program for Progress, Sutton’s organization, supplies the bulk of the slots for children under the age of 2, but the federally funded programs are only available to families that meet federal poverty guidelines.

The result is that the families in the middle suffer.

“Our programs are income-based and what we find is the families who are just above those income guidelines are the ones who are most at a disadvantage in this system,” Sutton said.

Now Sutton and the other members of the committee are hoping the county can find a creative solution to fix what is essentially a broken childcare economy.

Sutton hopes they can follow the lead of Jackson County, where Harris Regional Medical Center has worked in conjunction with private businesses to provide a daycare facility.

“We want to see some business or industry-based employers take up the call and say they’re going to invest,” Sutton said.

Public-private partnerships are another model, like a childcare facility at Haywood Community College that serves as a teaching institution for students in early childhood development. Also in Haywood, the school system partnered with a childcare center where teachers are given first priority.

Beale said the county would be willing to work on providing a space for a private daycare provider and would continue to work with the state to see if there was any money available to drive a solution to the problem.

“We’ve done the report. We have the need. Now what?” Beale said.

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