Damakant Jayshi

Marathon County will receive a grant to help address immense child care shortages and challenges, amid pleas from families and the business community.

Not all supervisors grasped the need for support, despite headlines nationwide and significant evidence the labor shortage is closely connected to an ongoing lack of affordable care.

The grant from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families is part of the Dream Up! Child Care Supply-Building Grant Program, which aims to support child care in communities throughout the state.

“Through this program, awarded communities receive strategic planning support and $75,000 in grant funding,” the DCF information says. “Additional $5,000 stipends will be allocated to participating child care providers who submit updated business plans during the strategic planning process.”

According to County Administrator Lance Leonhard, the county applied for the grant last year. The grant was won after the county presented a persuasive strategy to address the challenges related to child care.

During a presentation at the county’s Extension, Education and Economic Development Committee last week, staff said the strategy would try to leverage public-private funding partnerships with existing child care providers, explore alternative child care business models, invest and retain the current child care workforce in Marathon County, and increase wages for child care directors and teachers, among others.

Aaron Ruff, public health educator at the Marathon County Health Department and part of the presentation team, said the child care business model in the county is broken. Two others who were part of the team making the presentation at the EEED Committee on Thursday were Elsa Duranceau, a representative from North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board and Kelly Borchardt, executive director of Childcaring, a local child care resource and referral source.

Duranceau said other businesses usually pay their workers a minimum of $17.5 per hour with full benefits, whereas a child care staffer is paid about $12 an hour with no benefits. Parents spend $10,000-$12,000 a year on child care services, but staff see very little of that amount, she said.

Administrator Leonhard also said economic factors force people to make difficult choices. Employers with on-site child care centers will attract more people for work, he added.

Some supervisors said they would prefer a scenario in which families and extended families take responsibility for child care, not the county government.

Nationwide and locally, multiple indicators connect the lack of adequate and affordable child care to workforce attraction and retention, which also hinders economic growth. In Wausau and Marathon County, a significant lack of care exists, Ruff Said, with about 3,400 slots available for an estimated 8,000 children in the birth to 4 age group.

In just 8 years between 2014 and 2022, the county lost nearly 50% of its regulated child care providers. Since 2010, the cut off year for this presentation, the county lost more than 66% of providers, according to public documents.

The downward trend when it comes to trained child care staff comes at a time when Marathon County needs even more such personnel and providers.  County officials say that more staff is needed to increase capacity at existing providers.

Under the terms of the Dream Up! grant, the Wisconsin First Children’s Finance will provide “support through consultation to help them write up a multi-pronged Strategic Supply-Building Plan that invests in recruiting new teachers and offering apprenticeships at the three child care centers participating in the core team.”