Lolly Miller runs the Sheldon Jackson Child Care Center in Sitka. She says childcare centers are squeezed by high overhead costs (KCAW/Rose)

Childcare is costly and limited in Sitka. The town’s two biggest centers are both at capacity — and have waitlists — but the market for childcare is complicated. Even with increased fees, the centers struggle to stay afloat, and can’t afford to pay staff enough to curb high turnover. 

In part 2 of KCAW’s three-part series on early childhood services in Sitka, Katherine Rose explores the limitations faced by childcare centers.

It’s nap time at the Betty Eliason Child Care center. A soft voice croons, “Papa’s gonna buy you a billy-goat” from a small speaker in the background, as children sleep on pallets on the floor. Executive Director Erika Apathy takes a moment in the peace and quiet to show me the new infant wing.

“This will be where the kids play, and here’s an example of the heaters that need to be relocated,” she points to heaters on the floor. “And feel, it’s cold, so we need to improve the heating.”

There’s still some work to do. The center managed to raise around $43,000 in grant funding to remodel a part of the building into an infant room. They hope to have it up and running in March. 

But once it’s open, it’s going to fill up fast. 

“Up to three years old, we have a waiting list of about 27 kids,” Apathy says. “And we’re always getting calls for more.” 

Erika Apathy runs the Betty Eliason Child Care Center. Their new infant wing is currently under construction- it’s slated to open in March (KCAW/Rose)

Twenty-one of those are on the list for the infant room. But centers can only accommodate so many infants. And Apathy says the state’s ratios for infants to teacher aren’t realistic. 

“They say in an infant classroom, which is 6 weeks to 19 months, we can have 5 children for one caregiver. Which, to me, is too many babies. That’s a lot,” she says. “When people think about taking care of babies, they think it’s going to be fun, and oh, they’re babies, they’re cute. But it’s a really stressful job for people that’s unfortunately really underpaid as well.”

The Early Childhood Coalition – that’s the local group that’s trying to address the concerns of parents with young children — surveyed over 200 parents and caregivers last year. It found that accessibility and affordability were barriers to parents finding adequate childcare in Sitka — particularly around infant care. Mandy Evans says the problem is bigger than a lack of services for young families:  A lack of childcare affects us all.

“A lot of us in town are worried about this issue,” she says. “It’s an economic issue for our town. It’s about being able to find a reliable employee because they have reliable childcare.”

The Coalition also surveyed several of Sitka’s childcare providers and found that, similar to the parent survey, providers were the least satisfied with the availability of infant care for the community. 

The survey also asked about employee turnover in the last two years. All respondents saw turnover; some more than four positions vacated or changed in two years. The reason? Pay rate.  

It’s nap time again, when I visit the Sheldon Jackson Child Care Center.  Director Lolly Miller sits at her desk. From her desktop computer, she’s playing a video that illustrates why childcare costs so much.

“Why do early childhood teachers earn so little, when parents pay so much for childcare?” the narrator in the video asks. That, Miller says, is the crucial question. She says a huge chunk of tuition money at her center goes right back into keeping the building open, insured, and warm. 

“We have high overhead with insurance- just building insurance, property insurance. Food is high, oil is high. Everything, expenses are just very high,” she says. “A lot of what we bring in tuition wise- that just goes to other things, right off the top, before you’re even paying teachers.” 

Miller says they raise tuition about 3 percent every year and that barely covers the increases in costs for the facility to operate. But this year they didn’t raise the tuition because they wanted to give parents a break. But it’s still very costly. 

“I have probably five families here with two children. Their cost to be in this program is almost $2000 a month,” she says. “It’s huge.”

Even with student fees coming, once you take away all of the maintenance costs of operating the program, there’s not enough left to pay early-childhood teachers a competitive wage.

Miller has kept several staff on the payroll for years, but in general, turnover is high at childcare centers. She’s tried to curb that by providing some benefits and by keeping their teacher-to-student ratios as low as possible. Even so, she hasn’t been able to fill one position. 

“We’ve had a job advertised for almost a year and a half. One person has applied for that job. One. That has never happened to me in all my years,” says Miller.

She says that’s because the specialized care they provide isn’t valued highly enough. 

“It’s like if you’re hearing that little knocking and the light comes on in your car and it’s time to put the oil in, and you don’t stop and address the real problem, you’re just going to have a bigger problem,” says Joy Lyon, who directs the regional branch for the Association for the Education of Young Children in Juneau.

“That’s a good analogy for children- those first five years, so much is happening for their health and their education and for the economy,” she says.  

Lyon says even childcare providers with bachelor’s degrees in early childcare aren’t seeing a pay bump.

“If you work with a five-year-old you’re going to be making $60,000 a year. If you work with a four-year-old you’re making $26,000 a year.” 

The state provides income-based childcare assistance to families, and Sitka Tribe of Alaska and the Coast Guard provides subsidies to offset the high tuition cost, but not everyone qualifies for those programs. Lolly Miller says the center has even won big grants from STA to make improvements to their building, which is a huge relief for their budget. But, still, she says more assistance is needed to bolster the centers, so teacher pay can improve, and continuing to raise tuition is not the solution.

“It has to be subsidized somehow,” Miller says. “You get paid more to work at McDonald’s. The teachers I have are not working here obviously for the money and they make a better salary than maybe most centers.”

“People don’t want to stay in the field,” she continues. “There’s no health insurance in most places, no paid vacations or sick time, or all of those things. Why would you want to do this job?” 

Editor’s Note: This story is the second in a three-part series on childcare in Sitka. In part three, In part three, we widen the scope to see how other Southeast communities are coping with the “childcare gap.”

Read part one here