From the archive: Children at the Betty Eliason Childcare Center in the spring of 2021 (KCAW/Rose)

Tori Hay is a member of Sitka’s Early Childhood Coalition. When the assembly met on April 26, she told the group that as of earlier in the month there were 60 Sitka families on waiting lists for childcare.

“It takes years to get to the top of these lists, which causes uncertainty and stress as families wait for this essential resource. And, as we know, if families can’t access childcare, they can’t access their jobs to help take care of their families,” said Hay. “And a ripple effect of this is that Sitka has less access to workers to fill needed positions.”

Hay was one of a few community members that voiced support for the assembly’s decision to direct the city’s Health Needs and Human Services Commission to look into Sitka’s childcare shortage and provide recommendations on how to address it.

The Early Childhood Coalition has been advocating for solutions to Sitka’s childcare shortage for several years- hosting events like town halls and ‘self-care cafes,’ and collecting data from families. Hay said the group plans to ask the assembly to support House Bill 149, which would allow certain childcare providers to organize for collective bargaining and would establish a public fund for providers.

“I think that the community needs to be aware of the economic cost to the community of our lack of childcare,” said Rebecca Himschoot, who sponsored the discussion item. “It’s not only extremely costly, economically in terms of people who can’t get to work, but to the families, and it’s an equity issue.”

Himschoot listed statistics from Thread Alaska- a childcare advocacy group. According to the nonprofit’s  data, the cost of licensed early childhood education in Sitka equates to around 14 percent of a married couple’s income but makes up about 32 percent of a single man’s income, and 42 percent of a single woman’s income.

Child care centers have received an influx of cash in the last few years- the Sitka Assembly earmarked around $500,000 of its COVID relief budget for childcare, and the state set aside almost $100 million, which is still being distributed

But assembly member Kevin Knox said he’d discovered while working on distributing Sitka’s CARES Act federal pandemic funds, during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, that the problem was complex and the solutions varied.

“One of the things I kind of looked at was…what were other communities doing?” Knox said. “And there’s a massive gamut. There’s no single golden egg, for sure, that’s going to solve the crisis that we’re in.”

Assembly member Dave Miller asked members of the public  if access to childcare in Sitka had gotten worse.

“You brought up that there’s a waiting list of 60 names or so, give or take. How many names would have been on that list five years ago, or 10 years ago?” Miller asked. “I mean, is it bigger now than it was back then? Are there more people sitting around waiting to get on?”

Several people in the assembly chambers nodded, then Sheldon Jackson Childcare Center director Lolly Miller came to the podium. She told the assembly that the challenges are complex- childcare is expensive to provide, and they can’t raise the cost any higher without putting too much of a burden on parents. But they’re experiencing staffing shortages- Miller said she could open her facility up to 20 more kids if she could fully staff it. And she called for parents to stay engaged in the conversation, even after their kids had moved from early childhood into Sitka’s public schools. She noted one parent who is counting the days until he can get his child out of childcare and into public school which is free.

“And that’s what happens once you’re out,” Miller said. “Do you really think about us? After you’ve got your kids out? I’ve had yours, yours, yours, yours and his,” she said, pointing around the room. “I’ve had all of them. Just saying.”  

Her point being Sitkans should care about early childcare capacity even after their kids age out. 

The assembly unanimously agreed to ask the Health Needs and Human Services Commission to make recommendations on how to address childcare needs and programming in the community.

In other business, the Sitka Assembly…

-Voted to request the Police and Fire Commission make recommendations on how to improve Sitka’s snow removal process.

-Unanimously approved a $30,000 appropriation to repair a portion of Sitka Cross Trail. 

The section of the Cross Trail between Kramer Avenue and Cascade Creek washed out during a heavy rain event in late January, rendering it impassable. The city plans to hire Troy’s Excavation to make the repairs, with a June 15 deadline. The assembly will consider the item again on second reading at its May 10th meeting.