PUBLISHED: 4:29 PM on Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Childcare slots in Juneau are on the decline
Here is a question worthy of contemplation: Can parents sit quietly for an hour and clear their minds of sippy-cup lids that do not fit sippy-cup cups, of beige living room rugs turned rainbow-colored from spilled food, or of the lack of childcare in the coming weeks during work hours?

For many Juneau parents, the answer to the last part of that question is no.

Alaska has a shortage of quality childcare in many regions. In the capital city that shortage worsened last week when Bright Beginnings Early Learning Center in the Mendenhall Valley closed. It was one of the largest childcare centers in the city and one of a few centers that often had slots for infants.

In mid-March, Di Cathcart was searching for space for her two-month-old baby starting in April. She's a secretary in the City's Parks and Recreation Department and her husband works as a commercial fisherman.

"We started looking in the beginning of March. Right now, my husband and I are flip-flopping. He has the night shift and I have the day shift, but both of us work days starting in April," she said.

Cathcart said it's been hard to find a place for her little boy. Her search mirrors the experience of other local parents.

Nikki Morris probably knows better than anyone else in the capital city how many daycare spots are open. She's the Childcare Referral Counselor for the Association for Education of Young Children in Juneau and handles about 50 calls a month from families looking for childcare.

When she recently counted the number of slots open citywide for children under age 30 months, she found three or four.

Morris said the younger the child, the harder it is to find care. That's because state law requires more adult supervision for very young children.

Childcare facilities licensed by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services fall into three categories. A family childcare home has room for up to eight children. A group home handles up to 12 children and employs two caregivers who are required to have at least 20 hours of training per year. A licensed center can accommodate 13 or more children and its staff also is required to meet annual training criteria.

Morris said with the closure of Bright Beginnings, there are now eight childcare centers in the city and for the first time since she started working as a referral counselor, none has availability.

Last year the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Bright Beginnings owner Susan DeLoach as small business person for the year for the state of Alaska. She said she's selling her Juneau business because she has moved to Anchorage where she has two other childcare centers.

"We have had 11 successful years in Juneau and have enjoyed it so very much. We've provided quality care for over 1,000 children," she says.

DeLoach declined to offer a price for the business, but says she hopes a daycare provider will buy it. The daycare's land and buildings are listed at $845,000. Bright Beginnings sits on prime commercial real estate near the airport, according to realtor Tom Kohan who is selling the property. Given Juneau's strong commercial real estate market, the buildings little kids once called their daytime home may go to a business with higher profit margins than a childcare provider.

State representative Andrea Doll said the business of childcare presents a catch 22: parents want low fees, but low fees don't cover paychecks much above the minimum wage and that can lead to high staff turnover and low profits.

"When you go to childcare centers like Bright Beginnings, there's a tremendously high turnover rate among the people who work there. They tend to attract young kids who are just starting on the ladder. The wages are pretty low. It's a long day, and I think it's a stressful day," she said.

Doll is a member of Alaska's legislative Women's Caucus. It has requested a childcare center for children of legislators in the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple. The Legislature took ownership and started renovating the downtown Juneau building in February.

A study released last summer by the University of Alaska Southeast's System for Early Education Development recommends legislators work to improve childcare statewide. The study found that eighty seven percent of Alaskans say it's important or very important for state government to support funding of early education and childcare.

"A lack of childcare can threaten peoples' jobs and more generally the local economy," points out Joy Lyon, director of AEYC, Southeast Alaska. She said AEYC is boosting its recruitment efforts for individuals interested in starting home based childcare programs.

"We have flyers out and posters up all over town," she says.

AEYC is holding an open house for those considering establishing a childcare program. It takes place from 10-2 p.m. Saturday, April 28.