Parents and childcare providers in Sitka may be reaching a breaking point, as data suggests that families are leaving – or choosing not to come – because of the lack of adequate childcare. Sitka’s population of children under 13 has dropped, by a staggering number in the last decade. KCAW’s Katherine Rose reports on findings from Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s recent childcare study presented at Harrigan Centennial Hall on Wednesday (8-17-22).

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For at least a decade, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska has provided assistance to Tribal citizens with children in licensed childcare, and directed federal funds to providers through a Child Care and Development Fund block grant.

“However, once the pandemic hit, the number of tribal children attending licensed care plummeted,” said STA’s director of social services Melonie Boord.

“So we were kind of at a loss, what did we do?” Boord said.

At the same time, the Tribe received an additional funding boost through the American Rescue Plan, so Boord said they used the extra money to commission an in-depth study examining childcare needs and gaps in Sitka.

What the study found supports what many parents and childcare providers have been saying over the last few years. It’s the perfect storm: Even with eight licensed facilities in Sitka, childcare remains expensive and difficult to access.  Most of the facilities are operating at around half capacity. The main reason these childcare providers can’t fully open up is staffing. That leaves families without options, and providers struggling to keep their doors open.

Iris Matthews leads the Stellar Group, the research and consulting firm that conducted the study.

“The waitlist is over 100 long, and that’s probably not everybody looking for care, because a lot of people,” said Matthews. “They called [centers, and] they didn’t even bother to put their names on the list, because they’re going to be number 49 or 50. And they need care now.” 

If a child can get in the door, the cost is high for parents – around 16 percent higher than the state average, and it’s high for providers too. 

“None of them are getting rich on these rates either,” Matthews said. “As challenging as it can be for families to pay for care, that is the great balancing act that comes out too– it’s really hard work for providers too.”

There are resources to support the cost of childcare, both provided by the state and the Tribe, but Matthews said enrollment in those programs isn’t high.  

“We have over 1200 kids, and fewer than 44 are accessing any form of childcare assistance. That’s not very many,” Matthews said. “And we did ask, especially for tribal child care assistance, in our survey, folks were aware of the program, and about half were and, and of those, I think about three quarters thought they were probably eligible, but they weren’t necessarily taking advantage of it for, you know, lots of different reasons.” 

By comparison, about a third of Sitka kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch in schools.

Sitka isn’t the only community in Alaska that’s experiencing childcare woes. Matthews said it’s caused enough economic disruption that the business community is paying closer attention. The Alaska Chamber of Commerce published its own research on childcare last year. 

“That chamber survey found that 77% of parents have missed work in the last three months because of childcare issues,” Matthews said. “They equated that to $165 million lost dollars to our economy [annually].” 

All of this may be affecting a family’s decision to have children. Sitka has about 800 fewer residents in 2021 than in 2011 but that population dip is largest among young children. 

“The population in Sitka declined by just under 10%. The population of children 0-12 was down by 29%. We don’t really know why that is,” Matthews said. “One thing we do know is Sitka has a fairly low birthrate in comparison to the rest of the state.” 

She said there’s speculation that this decrease could be tied to the high cost of living in Sitka and the availability and cost of childcare. The majority of survey respondents in the Tribe’s study cited the high cost of housing and basic needs in Sitka as the number one challenge to raising children here. Number 2? “A hard time finding childcare.” 

Matthews says advocacy at the state level is a crucial next step. But at the local level, Melonie Boord says the Sitka Tribe is making moves. 

“I wish we could say that we have all of the answers,” Boord said. “We don’t, but we have started to think about strategic planning.” 

Boord said the Tribe is developing its strategic plan to tackle childcare. Although the plan isn’t set in stone yet, it provides around $400,000 toward programs like mini-grants for existing childcare providers to build capacity, and to provide financial support for in-home and relative care.