ARPA Health Advisory Commission approves recommendation for $30M to child care on split vote

By: - January 6, 2022 5:47 pm

Elizabeth Shults is worried that after 20 years running a child care business, she’ll be forced to close — despite a child care stabilization grant from the state of Montana.

“This money will not keep me in business,” said Shults, of Belgrade.

Thursday, Shults shared her experience applying for a child care stabilization grant from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to members of the American Rescue Plan Act Health Advisory Commission. At the meeting, members on a split vote accepted the health department’s recommendation to spend its remaining $30 million allocation for child care stabilization, but not before debate, and not before hearing about difficulties Shults experienced.

Shults applied for a specific amount of money following instructions from the department, but then, she learned she would receive just a fraction of the amount she applied for. She said the department deducted from her current application all the earlier relief funds she received in 2020 and 2021, such as CARES Act money and unemployment.

After the meeting, she said she had applied for $220,000, but her award letter was for just $21,000, and she knew of other providers in the same boat. She told the commission her business was in a precarious position.

“I have lost all faith and trust in the department,” Shults said.

The federal coronavirus relief act allocated $68 million for child care stabilization in Montana, and the commission earlier recommended roughly half of it, $31 million, go toward grants for child care businesses, according to a health department memo. Some $6.8 million, or 10 percent, was set aside for administration and operations.

Thursday, health department director Adam Meier said DPHHS deducted previous awards from current applications in order to give more providers and new applicants an opportunity to tap into the grants. He said DPHHS received 385 complete grant applications representing 43 percent of all eligible early childhood businesses in its most recent round of funding, and DPHHS noted additional rounds of granting would take place.

The department projects grant spending will exceed amounts the Health Advisory Commission already recommended and Gov. Greg Gianforte approved, so it recommended the remaining $30 million go toward child care stabilization as well.

Sen. Carl Glimm was among the members who voted against the recommendation. The Republican from Kila questioned the wisdom of “pouring” one-time money into child care without having enough data about working parents, and he also said the money was artificially propping up an industry, which would face a cliff after funds dried up.

“When that money runs out, the house of cards kind of comes tumbling down,” Glimm said.

Others voting against the recommendation to put $30 million to child care stabilization were Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, and Rep. Terry Moore, R-Billings. Those voting yes were Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, Chair and Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, DPHHS director Meier, governor’s general counsel Anita Milanovich, and the governor’s health care policy advisory Charlie Brereton.

In order to help child care businesses over the long term, director Meier said the department is working on building capacity and reducing barriers to providers or those who want to obtain licenses or expand. 

Caferro said one of the biggest problems for child care businesses is workforce, and although grant money doesn’t have to go toward workers, it can. She said workers on the frontlines deserve support, and she hopes they receive bonuses.

“My hope is that this money will also be invested in the workers who take care of the children because you can invest in infrastructure as much as possible, but if you don’t have the workers to care for the children, it won’t solve the problems,” Caferro said.

Garner said in the past, the governor has within a few days approved recommendations from the commission. He said he too has concerns about the cliff at the end of the funding, but the department has other tools that it’s using to help businesses with their models, including much of an earlier $42 million allocation.

Garner said he feels empathy for people such as Shults, who are worried about providing care today, but he said others have told him they appreciate the chance to provide new services or grow their businesses, and the grant offers them support as well. In general, he said the point is to help families who are struggling, and providers who are in a tough position, and he said he’ll continue working toward that mission and also working to ensure accountability.

“We have to be reminded of what the mission is, to stabilize the child care market and provide support to providers so that our families can be successful,” Garner said after the meeting. “It was made very clear to me that we have families struggling to pay $1,000 for a studio apartment and $800 a month, or whatever it is, for child care while they’re going to their service job, or whatever it happens to be. And while there are a lot of reasons for that, the tool we had in front of us today was this money.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”