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No quick solutions to child care shortage in N.D.

This is the second story in a two-part series looking at the child care shortage in wesetrn North Dakota.

By Teri Finneman

Forum Communications Co.

BISMARCK -- Solving the child care shortage in North Dakota will take time, but efforts are being made to address the problem, state and local officials said this week.

There are nearly 82,000 children who potentially need child care in North Dakota and licensed capacity is 33,200, a North Dakota Child Care Resource and Referral fall report shows.

In Williams County -- which includes Williston -- nearly 2,500 children potentially need day care and licensed capacity is 471.

An ideal goal would be for communities to meet 50 percent of demand with licensed care, said Linda Reinicke, a program director for North Dakota for Child Care Resource and Referral.

But the booming population, competitive job market, housing shortage and spiking prices for commercial property have complicated the child care problem in Oil Patch cities.

"It's frustrating, and it's frustrating for workers," said North Dakota Chamber of Commerce President Andy Peterson. "It's one more thing on the pile."

'Doing what we can'

During the 2011 legislative session, House and Senate Republicans argued about how much money should be allocated to help the child care industry.

The House wanted nearly $5 million for child care service providers' recruitment, training and retention grants. The Senate cut it to $250,000.

They settled on $3.1 million and agreed the Department of Human Services would oversee the program.

Less than $400,000 has been spent so far, but that doesn't mean progress isn't being made, said Jennifer Barry, early childhood services administrator.

"It looks low, but that's pretty typical," she said. "It's just because of the way the programs are set up."

North Dakota Child Care Resource and Referral services are delivered by two agencies: Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership in eastern North Dakota and Lutheran Social Services in western North Dakota.

The agencies offer consultants who can help child care providers set up a business. They also offer start-up and enhancement funding, as well as online courses for providers, Reinicke said.

During the 2009-11 biennium, the programs helped nearly 100 people earn a child development associate credential, and nearly 100 home providers completed the recruitment program and became licensed, Barry said.

In addition, 71 home providers and 18 child care centers completed the quality enhancement program. These numbers don't include people still in progress with the programs, she said.

The goal is to recruit 90 new family child care providers and eight new centers in the state this year, Reinicke said. She is also working with Williston Economic Development to create a plan to expand child care in the area.

The fastest way to increase capacity is for people to create in-home day cares for even small groups of children, Reinicke said. Becoming licensed "is not as scary as people would think," but they do have to understand it's a business, she said.

"Taking care of a group of children is an art. It's a skill that we have to learn," she said. "Just because you've raised children doesn't mean you necessarily know how to care for children in a group setting."

There's a commitment to supporting anyone who wants to enter the child care field and to addressing the shortage, Barry said.

"We're certainly doing what we can to respond to it," she said.

Spurring development

The state Commerce Department also helps the child care industry by offering $96,000 in grant funding, with up to half for special needs child care grants, said Gordon LaFrance, a compliance manager at Commerce.

Officials have not decided how to distribute the remaining money, but discussions will include the oil activity in the western part of the state and flood impacts, he said.

Loans through community development block grants and state development fund money are other sources for child care providers, said Paul Govig, director of Commerce's Division of Community Services.

Even with state and local incentives to encourage people to open child cares, Williston's demand for housing, commercial space and workers makes it difficult, said Shawn Wenko, assistant director of Williston Economic Development.

"We have such a shortage for child care, but we don't want to just, you know, throw child care up wherever we can," he said. "We still want to have some quality with this and make sure parents are receiving quality care."

Housing prices should come down once the city starts catching up with the housing shortage, he said. This should help several of Williston's issues, including child care, he said.

At least two conferences are planned to address housing in the state. The North Dakota Housing Finance Agency will host a statewide housing conference on Feb. 8 and 9 in Bismarck.

The Bakken Housing Summit will meet in mid-May in Williston. The challenge is to build 5,000 homes in western North Dakota in the next 24 months, a summit news release stated.

The governor's office is also in contact with major developers interested in building housing in North Dakota, said Ron Rauschenberger, chief of staff for Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Need unique answers

Last year, some legislators suggested studying the training and assistance provided to early childhood services providers so they could make recommendations for the 2013 session. It didn't make the list of studies selected for the 2011-12 interim.

Judy Vinger of Williston, who has worked in child care for 32 years, is frustrated that child care "has never been a priority" for government officials.

Policymakers don't reach out to providers to understand the issues, she said. The economy has forced many women to work because of the cost of living, and children need quality day care, she said.

"The state government needs to quit looking at what it was like when they raised their children and look at the facts," Vinger said.

Western North Dakota is providing the state with revenue, and there needs to be investment in these communities, she said. Officials who give tax credits to oil companies should also look at tax credits and incentives for child care providers, she said.

"There's easy fixes that could really benefit the providers and make it more equitable for them to stay in business," Vinger said.

Staci Ekblad, who has a child care center in Williston, also would like tax breaks for providers.

"Our business definitely gets overwhelmed with taxes," she said. "It makes it very difficult to stay in business, to be honest with you."

Wenko of Williston Economic Development agrees with Vinger's idea to have developers and officials sit down with day care providers to discuss the issues.

"It's a challenge," Wenko said. "We're almost in unconventional times. We've got to come up with some unique answers."

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.