It’s no secret that working parents have long struggled to find day care for their children in Jackson Hole, but no one knows the full extent of the problem. Teton County is about to find out through a child care assessment.
The responsibility for investigating the state of child care in Teton County will fall to someone who already knows the issue well: Alex Norton.
The former long-range planner for the town and county, who left the post last fall after 12 years working in Jackson Hole’s local government, will undertake a study of the supply and demand for child care after officials selected him for the job Monday.
“As a local community planner, father of a 2- and 5-year-old, and owner of an infant daycare,” Norton wrote in his application for the contract, “I know many of the child care challenges facing the community and have relationships with the key partners.”
The inventory is the first step in a recent effort by elected officials to better understand the obstacles faced by those trying to provide child care in Teton County and those trying to procure it.
“As we start to engage in a community conversation around this, we just wanted to have a starting point so we could set some goals,” Teton County Commission Chairwoman Natalia Macker said. “I think the more we can have data to help us understand the need, then we can hopefully make great strides.”
Since leaving the town and county, Norton has spent the past year working as a consultant through his company, OPS Strategies. Among his projects were the creation of enrollment projections for school districts in Teton and Laramie counties.
Now he will turn his gaze to the pre-K situation. He will start by compiling data from several organizations, including the Wyoming Department of Family Services, Teton County Public Health and Teton County School District No. 1. That will give an idea of how many licensed child care providers work in the county and how many children age 6 and younger live here.
More nuanced data could open an even clearer window into the child care plight. For example, Norton suggested gathering information on cost, hours of operation, staffing, waitlists, child demographics and even the locations of providers and children’s homes. That data would take a wider scope, including unlicensed providers, nanny-shares and other kinds of child care that the broader data would overlook.
To get at those less-documented aspects of child care, Norton would supplement the first data set with interviews with some 30 providers and parents and distribute a “robust survey of needs” to families in English and Spanish.
The outcome of Norton’s inventory study will be a report detailing his findings and outlining steps to “capitalize on opportunities and mitigate threats,” to be submitted in November.
The work will cost the town and county just under $14,000, nearly $9,000 more than expected. But other community partners may fund part of the expense. Norton was the only consultant to respond about the study.
As an owner of Teton Tiny Tots, a cooperative infant and toddler daycare, Norton wrote, he is familiar with the trials — and importance — of child care in Teton County.
“Affordable, convenient, quality child care and early childhood education is a crucial piece of a strong community character and quality of life,” he wrote.
Jackson Hole Working, a diverse group of community members, lauded the inventory study in a letter to elected officials, noting the immense benefits of child care to both individuals and communities overall.
“Especially in Teton County,” the letter says, “access to affordable, reliable early childhood education can be the difference in improving a family’s socioeconomic status. Enrolling in child care can open the door to parents being able to take career goals further, expanding their skills, knowledge and income.
“On par with housing,” the letter says, “childcare is an essential need in our community. Some families are faced with difficult decisions every day in Teton County of whether a parent can return to work or afford child care.”
Female electeds speak up
Town Councilor Hailey Morton Levinson and Macker — the only two female elected officials and both mothers of young children — are largely responsible for the heightened attention to child care. The two have brought the subject to prominence in recent months, pushing for action on the often-overlooked issue.
In the spring they each brought resolutions before their respective governing bodies to recognize the Week of the Young Child, an “annual celebration” hosted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
‘Life safety is paramount’
Also earlier this year, the town asked planners to look into the regulatory hardships that child care providers face, but they ultimately decided they can’t change much on that front, especially considering much comes from the state level. Fire sprinklers, Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and building codes may be onerous, Community Development Director Tyler Sinclair said, but they exist for good reasons.
“Life safety is paramount,” he said. “I think a lot of people are shocked by the requirements. ... but certainly my position would be they’re absolutely necessary.”