Child Care Crunch: What strategies can help child care businesses work?
WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont officials say the pandemic and low enrollment has forced a number of child care businesses to close over the past year. In part two of her report, Cat Viglienzoni looked into what strategies can help make a child care business work even outside the pandemic stresses?
Sara LeBlanc says she and her husband did much of the work to get their newest Next Generation child care campus up and running in Williston.
She says the interior design of the center is intentional. There are not a lot of flashy colors and there is a focus on sustainability, with natural items and recycled materials. From the hand-washing sinks made out of old doors, to the refurbished kitchen with handmade cabinets and countertops, each detail was made with a brand in mind.
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What do you think makes a child care business work financially?
Sara LeBlanc: I think you need to be unique. Anyone can do child care, but what makes you different, so someone might choose you over the other one.
Williston is Next Generation’s fourth location. All of them focus on nature and getting kids outside. LeBlanc says it’s a selling point when prospective parents ask about their program. Success in filling their Georgia location allowed her to open a second spot in St. Albans early this year. Even after the pandemic’s financial toll hit, she couldn’t pass up the chance to expand into Chittenden County. “A couple spaces just fell upon us and we had to take the opportunity when we could,” LeBlanc said.
With grant money -- and because she already had multiple locations -- she was able to make it work, even when their newest locations didn’t fill up due to the pandemic. “You lose a lot of money when you open a program to start. You’re starting staff right off at the get-go because you need to train them. But the kids aren’t here yet to pay for that staff, so they’re not here yet to pay for the building while you’re building. So, the other programs are sort of covering that overhead that are full while you’re moving forward. So, it’s definitely made it sustainable,” LeBlanc said.
We found out that in the child care business, success often comes down to size. Child care advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids says programs with over 60 families, or fewer than 12, tend to be the most financially feasible. Middle-sized programs often struggle with the ratio of expenses to income. “Running a child care program is very similar in many ways to running any other type of small business. Small businesses are challenging,” said the group’s LouAnn Beninati.
She works with child care businesses to help them be successful. She says a couple of strategies include embracing technology to make collecting payments and paying staff easier. Also, sharing back-office needs so that each program doesn’t have to have a full administrative staff.
Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: How often is it that programs are sharing these back-of-house resources?
LouAnn Beninati: Well, we’re getting there. It’s relatively new in child care... We have a couple of networks within the state that are starting to dig into those practices a little bit more.
Help with bookkeeping would make a big difference for Kristina Barber at Little Fawns Child Care. She’s the only staff member at her home-based program and says the administrative work and cleaning -- plus the child care itself -- is exhausting. “It’s hours of paperwork. I could spend a whole weekend doing paperwork,” Barber said.
She moved her business from St. Albans to Essex Junction during the pandemic and like Next Generation is still looking to fill spaces. But without multiple locations to lean on, she says she’s barely making it work. “I talked to my husband about potentially getting a second job on a Saturday, which isn’t ideal,” Barber said. But she says she loves working with kids and is hopeful she can make her business work too. “I’m honestly terrified that maybe I’m not going to make it and then what am I going to do? Because I can’t afford child care for myself.”
Let’s Grow Kids says you don’t have to have multiple locations to be successful though it helps with the administrative overhead. They also urge child care providers to tap into state systems that are designed to help them. Even then, they say Vermont’s child care system needs an overhaul because it’s not paying early educators an affordable wage, isn’t affordable for families, and the margins for businesses are still too tight. They’re releasing a plan in the new year that aims to offer a way to fix that.
by Cat Viglienzoni