Preschool-aged children play in Petersburg (Photo by Katie Holmlund)

Petersburg Borough assembly members and childcare advocates got together to come up with a plan of how to address local childcare needs. They decided to form a task force and create an incentive program for workers. KFSK’s Angela Denning reports:

The problems with childcare in Petersburg are well documented but they remain complicated.

There are long wait lists for dozens of kids needing childcare but the providers are having trouble keeping staff. A recent survey showed an 81 percent turnover rate among workers. There’s little incentive for them to stay. They average $12.72 an hour with no benefits.

“I currently receive no benefits in the form of paid time off, sick leave, compensated training time, insurance or retirement,” said Katie Holmlund, reading a letter from one of her childcare workers who is likely leaving her job.

Holmlund helps run Good Beginnings preschool and the Kinderskog afterschool program. She chocked up reading the letter and apologized for getting emotional. But said the childcare workers in town need more support. She said families got support during the pandemic. She spent 72 percent of her grant money last year on families making sure they could get through it.

“We need to do something to make sure our staff is getting through this,” Holmlund said. “It was a problem before, it’s still a problem, it’s going to remain a problem until more people take action and respect the job that they’re doing.”

Sharlay Mamoe, Director of the Petersburg Children’s Center, said she can’t pay her staff more because that would raise rates to families.

“I, doing our finances for the Children’s Center, know that’s just not feasible without greatly raising the rates and we know already how expensive childcare is,” she said.

Most of Petersburg’s 24 childcare workers do not have credentials because there is little incentive. Only one has a bachelor’s degree related to early childhood, one has a two-year degree or the equivalent, and six have Current Child Development Associate Certificates or equivalent credits. The rest don’t have any credentials.

Joni Johnson with Petersburg’s SHARE Coalition that’s looking into the childcare issue, stressed that it’s not a reflection on the services provided, it’s just the facts.

“We’re talking about educators because that’s what they’re there for,” Johnson said. “Not just provide a safe place, safe shelter, they feed, they nurture these kids but also they’re educators.”

Children toss water balloons in the outdoor afterschool program, Kinderskog. in Petersburg. (Photo by Katie Holmlund)

The meeting group decided a task force was needed to address the complicated situation. They came up with a three step process. First, get the assembly to approve the creation of a task force at their next regular meeting, April 4. The task force would be broken up into several subcommittees with specific goals. Next, the borough assembly would hear a presentation by Juneau’s Economic Development Council about how their borough helps childcare services there. Thirdly, create an incentive program for childcare workers in Petersburg, which could involve education and benefits.

Petersburg Medical Center has indicated that they could administer the incentive program.

The SHARE coalition has been working on the childcare issue in recent years and organized an industry survey. Borough Assembly member Chelsea Tremblay said she looked forward to the borough getting on board with them.

“Becoming a borough thing makes it more of a forward motion,” Tremblay said. “I’m excited.”

The borough assembly has discussed using some of its $634,382 in ARPA funds (American Rescue Plan Act) to help childcare services. But some assembly members voiced opposition to spending money on something they don’t see as sustainable.

Assembly member Jeff Meucci said it’s time to try it.

“The borough has to step up and spend some money here,” he said. “It’s a borough wide issue. There are tangible funds around that we should be able to take a bite out of a few of these things and see how it works.”

He said an incentive program would be a great collaboration between the borough and the medical center in the future.