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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Prairie View begins surveying parents about childcare needs

Updated: Apr 11

The Prairie View school district is looking to parents of young children to determine childcare needs in the district. (Wix file photo)

By Roger Sims,

LA CYGNE – Parents of children in the Prairie View school district have been asked to weigh in about their childcare needs after the board of education gave district Superintendent Chris Johnson the green light to research potential demand for daycare at its February meeting.

The decision by the Prairie View board puts a spotlight on what many involved in early childhood development see as a crucial shortcoming in Linn County and the state of Kansas that needs to be addressed.

The decision by the Prairie View board came following a presentation by Callie Hoffman, representative for United Way for Linn and Miami counties and director of the area Parents as Teachers program. Hoffman told the board that there was a pool of money, about $450,000, that was available for the Osawatomie school district and the Prairie View district to share on early childhood development programs.

The funds became available for Prairie View after a bond issue proposal by the Paola school district did not receive voter approval in November, and that district shelved its project. The funds from the grant must be spent by June, so time was of the essence in completing the preliminary work by the Prairie View district.

Hoffman made it clear that while the money could be used to hire staff to do the feasibility study, there was not enough money to sustain a childcare operation and the district would need to find other resources for that.

Last year Johnson proposed to the Prairie View board that it should consider offering daycare to the public, including to staff. She suggested that it would be an enticement in recruiting teachers and other staff members who had young children at home, however, she also recognized that there was a need in the community.

In her discussion with the board in February, Hoffman said there was a dire need for daycare in the area. Because of that, United Way shifted its focus 18 months ago to address that pressing concern.

“The state of Kansas has a major childcare problem, and Linn County has a catastrophic childcare problem,” she said.

She presented information developed by Child Care Aware of Kansas that showed that Linn County was one of four counties in the state that had as many as 40 children needing childcare for every opening at a childcare center in the county.

According to the organization, there are currently eight licensed family or group child care homes operating in Linn County. The homes charge more than $130 weekly for full-time child care, more than $70 weekly for part-time care, or $4.50 hourly.

Hoffman said that, because of the shortage of open slots, many Linn County parents were driving an hour both ways to a daycare center before then driving on to their jobs. For the children that time would be better spent in some enrichment activity.

According to Johnson, Prairie View does not have a set dollar amount that it can spend for development of a daycare program. Instead it will share that pot of money with the Osawatomie school district. 

Osawatomie’s plan is to take its existing pre-kindergarten classes, which currently meet for part of the day, and expand them into daylong classes so they can be in one place while their parents work all day.

She said it would allow more Prairie View pre-K children to attend those classes. Currently parents don’t enroll their children in pre-K classes because students are only enrolled part of a day

Jessica Hightower, assistant public works director who also acts as economic development director for Linn County, welcomed news that the school district was interested in providing that service. She saw district involvement as a stopgap measure because current providers couldn’t provide enough openings.

The childcare deficiency was one of the problems Hightower looked at in 2022. She received permission from the county commission to form a committee to look at the problem, but when it became apparent that commissioners were not interested in providing funds to address the issue, that committee fell to the wayside.

Most if not all of the childcare providers in Linn County are home-based operations and must meet a mountain of strict regulations, according to Bonnie Hobson. For several years Hobson has run home daycare centers in Kansas, California and Washington state.

A former Head Start teacher with extensive training in early childhood development, Hobson said in an interview in early March that the demands on home childcare businesses, both from the standpoint of service to families and complying with state regulations, can cause those daycare providers to throw in the towel.

State requirements include physical inspections and tuberculosis tests for family members, providing veterinary records for family pets, providing activities in all stages of development, making sure the yard is fenced and meets state regulations, providing dolls representing different ethnic groups, and meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture standards on meals served, she said.

“There’s so much stuff that it isn’t possible to make that happen,” she said.

For those providers who have children 12 and younger at home, state regulations stipulate that those children count as children who are being served under the state license, Hobson explained. When home daycares are limited in the number of children they can serve, that cuts into the daycare provider’s bottom line.

An in addition to being open 10-plus hours a day, home daycare providers must also schedule doctor and dentist visits around that schedule. And when state inspectors come calling, business operators must fix any irregularities within five days, she said.

The inspections can be overwhelming. She said one inspector for her home-based facility went through family members’ underwear drawers.

“You have to be all of these different people and still provide decent care,” she said.

Superintendent Johnson said that she had been working with a staff member to develop the survey that would go out to parents in the district.

One central question on the survey will be where a daycare center should be located. Would it be best at at central location at the high school-middle school complex west of La Cygne, would it be better in La Cygne or Parker, or would it be better at both Parker and La Cygne?

However, no matter where it might be located, it would not be in a classroom.

“We don’t have any open classrooms,” Johnson said.

One option might be to use the former bus barn at La Cygne, but Johnson said she didn’t know if that structure would work or if it would be better to rent temporary mobile classrooms if the board decide to begin the program once information had been gathered.

Board members indicated that while they were aware of the need, there was some hesitation for jumping into the project when a long-term funding source had not been identified.

Board president Russell Pope said he was hesitant to begin with the research without being able to fund the program.

Board member Brian Uphoff said that the after-school program that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant was an example of what happened after grant funds dried up in the early 2000s. He noted that parents who used the program could not afford the dollars the program needed to continue without grant funds.

“That is my biggest fear is that we’ll get started and get going and … not have the funds to continue,” Uphoff said.

With oversight from the superintendents of the Prairie View, Jayhawk and Pleasanton superintendents, the county’s 21st Century program included after-school programs in each of the seven towns where elementary schools were located at that time. Since then, elementary schools at Prescott, Blue Mound and Fontana have closed.

Nationally, grant money for the 21st Century program shifted away from rural communities and toward urban programs like Boys and Girls Clubs. In order to try to keep the local after-school programs alive, voters gathered signatures on a petition to put a 1-cent sales tax on the ballot, with half of the money going to the after-school programs and the remainder to county cities.

Following a fairly intense campaign against the program led by local media, the issue received less than 20% of the vote. The program managed to continue for several months after that on money it had in reserves but was eventually forced to close. The only district to operate an after-school program since then has been Pleasanton.

Last year, the Pleasanton school board looked at opening a childcare center for many of the same reasons that the Prairie View board is interested – lack of enough openings in existing facilities and a way to attract quality staff. However, so far, it has not gone beyond the discussion stage.

Pleasanton Superintendent Don Epps said that identifying a source of funds for the operation continues to be a concern, but the district will continue to the look at the possibility.

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