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Traverse area child care center to close

The Record-Eagle - 2/15/2020

Feb. 15--TRAVERSE CITY -- One preschooler is still napping while her classmates are up and eating their afternoon snacks at the Angel Care preschool and day care center at Old Mission Peninsula School.

Angel Care is closing at the end of the school year, said Karin Cooney, executive director of the nonprofit.

Including infants and toddlers, there are about 30 kids at the center, which is housed in two rooms leased from OMPS. Most of the children will be placed in spots at Angel Care's second location on Hastings Street and no employees will lose their jobs, Cooney said.

Children and employees will be transitioned to that site as spaces open up, she said. Some employees had already been planning to leave by June 12, the official closing date, and will not be replaced.

The center opened in 2018; the Hastings Street location has been in operation since 2004.

"My first reaction was, 'What am I going to do?'" said Jennifer Henbest, who has a 3-year-old at the center. "I don't know of any place that has openings."

Henbest, who also has a first-grader at OMPS, was relieved to find out the center wasn't closing until the end of the school year and that there would be openings at the other Angel Care center.

"For most of us there aren't a lot of options," Henbest said.

Getting and keeping good employees is at the heart of the decision to close, Cooney said. Turnover in the low-paying job is high, she said, and day care centers all over the region are competing for workers. That also causes a lot of job-hopping, she said.

It's something that every business in the area is facing in the current job market -- not just day care centers, Cooney said.

"I'm sad to see it, but I understand," said Will Gibb, who lives nearby and has a preschooler in the program and another in kindergarten at the school.

His preschooler will be in kindergarten this fall, but will attend the Hastings Street center for the summer.

Closing the center will add to the overall challenge for parents of finding day care spots, as most centers have long waiting lists and only have openings when a child goes to kindergarten or moves away.

With Angel Care moving out, OMPS is now exploring the option of opening its own preschool, said Rick Couturier, head of school.

"We're always looking to expand our enrollment," Couturier said, as well as offer options for families.

Cooney said that did not play into the decision to close Angel Care at that site.

Munson Healthcare earlier this month opened a 109-spot day care center for children of its employees. That put a strain on available employees, Cooney said.

But it may also open up spots at other area centers, said Dale Killingbeck, Munson spokesman.

Spots for infants and toddlers are especially hard to find, Cooney said.

"As sad as it is to close infant and toddler rooms in this community, the message has to go out that something needs to change," Cooney said.

Cooney said she likes to have an extra person -- beyond what the state requires -- in each of its rooms to make sure children get the care and attention they need.

That also adds a cushion when someone is sick or just doesn't show up for work, she said.

"When you operate at minimum, staff can't be sick or go on vacation," Cooney said.

Over time that adds up. When employees work longer hours, have to miss appointments and cancel evening plans because they can't get away from work they quickly burn out, she said.

"It's not healthy for our employees and it's not healthy for our kids," Cooney said. "For what we ask these teachers to do every day and to make the wages they're making -- it's a difficult sell."

A recent study done for Networks Northwest confirms what the 10-county northwest lower Michigan region has known for many years: The region is losing day care providers -- 30 percent over the last seven years -- even as the demand for those providers is on the rise.

"We are not unique in this problem," said CEO Matt McCauley. "This is occurring across the nation."

It affects every household with children, whether in urban or rural, affluent or poor areas, McCauley said.

Many people are surprised to learn that the cost of day care is often as high as a mortgage payment, he said.

"It's tough with one child in day care," he said. "It's nearly impossible with two."

As a result, two-income households are becoming one-income households, he said. And that only compounds the labor shortage.

Cooney said when the Hastings Street center opened about 75 percent of families were using part-time day care. That number has now flipped, with 75 percent of families using full-time care.

Angel Care recently raised its pay for child care workers from $10-$11 per hour to $13-$14, Cooney said. But that has increased what parents are paying for child care, she said.

Cooney said she works on finding grants and donors to fund scholarships for low-income families. But she thinks the state should subsidize day care for families. That, she says, would attract companies to the state and attract employees to those companies.

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