Audrey Dutton

(Idaho Capital Sun) Lakewood Montessori in Boise took a string of financial hits from the COVID-19 pandemic — from closures in early 2020 to ongoing inflation and worker shortages.

And, like other Idaho child care centers, Lakewood used federal grants from the American Rescue Plan Act to add $300 a month to the paychecks of its employees.

Lakewood co-owner Mary Clements expected the ARPA grants to run out by September or even June. So, the school, which educates toddlers through kindergarten students, told parents that a 7% to 10% tuition increase was on the way for the coming school year.

That was before the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee voted Feb. 27 not to distribute any remaining ARPA child care funds — neither $36 million in federally funded grants that Health and Welfare would distribute from July through September, nor $43 million in remaining federal allocations for Idaho to spend on child care grants until July.

“Had we known what JFAC was going to do, our business plan would have changed significantly,” Clements said. “I’m very nervous about steps we will have to take to make our budget work if the wage enhancements and grants are not reinstated. Ultimately, extra costs will land on the shoulders of parents.”

The budget approved by JFAC must also be approved in the House and Senate. It hasn’t yet come up for a vote in either chamber.

The morning of March 1, Clements and other child care providers received an email from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

“Because the budget request was not approved, March 2023 will be the final child care grant payment, and this final payment amount may be modified due to limitations in our budget,” said the email, signed by the department’s child care program manager. “If the legislature later approves the ongoing use of the funds for the grants, I will write again with another update for all participants.”

If the budget goes through the Idaho Legislature without an authorization to spend the federal funds, Lakewood will have to “raise tuition significantly right away,” Clements said. “… And it most likely won’t be enough.”

Child care providers gather at Idaho Statehouse in Boise

Child care providers, parents and children gathered at the Capitol in Boise to demonstrate Wednesday to call attention to what they say is an impending crisis. After the rally, they went inside the Capitol to appeal to lawmakers to reinstate the funding in time to route the federal grants to child care providers in Idaho, instead of returning the money to the federal government to be reallocated to other states.

Two hours after the rally on the steps of the Capitol, Idaho legislative leaders spoke at a press conference hosted by the Idaho Press Club.

House Speaker Mike Moyle, R-Star, said he was unaware of JFAC’s decision to approve a budget without the child care funding. It “hasn’t been on my radar,” he said, later suggesting that legislators may approve the funds separately in these final weeks of the session.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he was unaware of the reason behind JFAC’s vote but said he intends to investigate it further.

House and Senate Democratic leaders Sen. Melissa Wintrow and Rep. Ilana Rubel, both from Boise, said they did not understand why JFAC would deny child care assistance.

“This is an inflection point for every other industry. Every industry in the state counts on child care access, whether you are in manufacturing or whether you’re in food services or whatever you’re in, your workers need child care,” Rubel said. “And these funds are very badly needed. I think it can still be fixed, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Some Idaho centers may close

Storybook Early Learning Centers in North Idaho is among the first child care providers to decide to shutter a facility due to losing the grants now instead of in summer or fall.

The business has three child care centers — in Old Town, Ponderay and Sandpoint. The ARPA child care wage enhancement grants helped maintain competitive wages at one center, while another set of child care grants through ARPA helped offset the cost of rent for the Ponderay center.

The Ponderay center was one of few child care centers with immediate openings for new children, and it was on track to be self-sustaining by summer, said Storybook CEO and President Pana Vanderholm.

JFAC’s decision to cancel the grants immediately changed the bottom line for Storybook. It must now break its lease for that property and transfer the children — whose parents wanted local child care in Ponderay — to the Sandpoint center.

That puts a strain on the Sandpoint child care center, which is already full, she said.

The ARPA child care grants were “allowing us to keep our doors open, so we could take (children who had been on) a waitlist and support families who were in the Ponderay area,” Vanderholm said.