SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Rebecca Wimmer doesn’t want the spotlight on the child care industry to fade. 

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, extra attention and federal aid has been given to industry, nationwide. The pandemic exposed the child care system’s shortcomings of a narrow business model that is expensive for both parents and providers, staffing shortages, children-to-staff ratios, licensed and unlicensed providers, the importance of early learning, funding options and where to find solutions.   

Wimmer has plenty of experience in child care previously as the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of the Sioux Empire and now overseeing an after-school program for the Sioux Falls School District. 

As the SFSD coordinator of community partnerships, Wimmer has been part of the Sioux Falls Childcare Collaborative which is focused on working with child care providers, non-profits and government entities to discuss the challenges and look for solutions.    

“We need innovative thinkers,” Wimmer told KELOLAND News. “We need people that are innovative, whether they know anything about childcare, not it doesn’t matter. We need people that can think out of the box that are willing to toss ideas out there.” 

According to a study by EmBe for the Sioux Falls Childcare Collaborative, there’s 73,000 children under the age of 6 in South Dakota and 74% of all parents are in the workforce in South Dakota, which is higher than the national average of 66%. That means more than 54,020 children rely on child care in South Dakota. 

According to the latest database information from the Department of Social Services, there’s 783 licensed child care providers and at least 12 unregulated family day care providers. 

Wimmer helps oversee Kids Inc., a program run by the SFSD that provides after school child care for roughly 1,500 students at 23 different elementary schools. 

“We do have waiting lists, but there’s always opportunities if we’re able to expand staffing,” Wimmer said. “We are at our capacity in terms of what we’re able to manage with the staffing that we have. There’s always opportunities if we’re able to expand staffing.” 

Staffing challenges

Staffing has been a key issue for child care providers big and small across South Dakota. Wimmer said many of the positions for Kids Inc. aren’t full time and the program relies heavily on younger adults – high school and college students to help oversee kids ages kindergarten to 5th grade. Paying for staffing has long been an issue and with higher staffing wages, the expense is usually placed on families needing child care.

“Our childcare providers are finding that there are absolutely no profit margins,” Wimmer said. “In fact, many of them are upside down. They’re having to seek out resources from other places such as grants, philanthropy, things like that to try and cover that gap. It’s become harder and harder to get that gap covered.” 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says if a family makes $60,000 per year, affordable child care would cost $4,200 dollars a year per child.

But a local study found parents were already paying more than twice that amount two years ago. A local business owner told KELOLAND News the price for child care for two newborns would be $500 a week.

A Rapid City economic development leader, a Rapid City child care provider and national organization Council for a Strong America released an 8-page report which discussed some of the problems in South Dakota’s child care industry. 

That report says South Dakota is losing an estimated $146 million in annual costs for a lack of reliable child care for children up to age 3. It says employers feel the effects of insufficient child care with reductions in revenue and increased hiring costs.

Ratios and capacity

Kids Inc. maintains a ratio of 15 children to 1 adult.   

For many child care providers, the state requires a ratio of 12 children to 1 adult with no more than 4 children under the age of 2 and no more than 2 under the age of 1. 

“In South Dakota, we have quite liberal staff to child ratios compared to some other states,” Wimmer said. “My concern is always the safety and appropriate environment for those children.” 

She mentioned easing ratio requirements is a discussion option by lawmakers, but she stressed there shouldn’t be a situation where a provider is at a capacity that can’t be managed. She said safety and best practices should be considered first and then build requirements around those best practices. 

“I don’t think we should ever make decisions solely because it would be less financially burdensome for an organization to be able to have more children with less providers,” Wimmer said. 

Universal preschool

A statewide study of preschool gaps was planned for South Dakota’s Department of Education. That’s what secretary of education Tiffany Sanderson told lawmakers this past legislative session. Democratic lawmakers have been critical of the state’s lack of funding for early childhood education. 

When asked about universal preschool as part of the child care solution, Wimmer said the universal preschool means a number of different things for different people. 

“The funding sources for that can be different,” Wimmer said. “Desires of families can be very different. Is this a required preschool for every student across the state? That may not be cohesive with what families are looking for their children.” 

Wimmer said without knowing how a possible program would look she couldn’t say she’d be a proponent or opponent of universal preschool. 

“What I can say is that there have to be multifaceted solutions to the issue that we’re dealing with,” Wimmer said. “I don’t think if you put universal preschool in place, the child care crisis will be over. It’s just one piece of the puzzle that we need to look at.”

Finding solutions

Next week, DSS is holding public listening sessions in Sioux Falls, Aberdeen and Rapid City on how $38 million in one-time federal funding should be used to support child care in the state. 

“Child care is an important issue for families, businesses and communities across South Dakota,” DSS Cabinet Secretary Laurie Gill said in a news release. “It is important to hear from those directly affected on how the one-time funds we have available can best be put to use.”

DSS has already overseen more than 600 child care providers get more than $32 million in American Rescue Plan Act “child care stabilization grants.” All the money is being tracked on the state’s transparency website

The upcoming public meetings are in-person and virtual for people to attend starting with child care providers and advocates 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday at Southeast Technical College in Sioux Falls. The following day at the same time is a session for families and community members. 

“I think the Department of Social Services is doing a fantastic job of really trying to get at the heart of what this issue is,” Wimmer said. “The needs in different areas of the state are very different than what they might be in Sioux Falls.”  

For Sioux Falls, the Childcare Collaborative is moving towards hiring a full-time person who can dedicate the time and effort to dig into the issues around the child care industry. Wimmer said Sioux Falls could be looking for a public-private partnership to help serve all the stakeholders involved. 

Mayor Paul TenHaken said before his annual budget address he needs to know if the industry needs a money solution, a flexibility solution, more buildings or more staffing. 

“I need to know where we can help,” TenHaken said in July. “Before we just throw money at something, I need to know what we need to throw money at to fix the problem.”    

Wimmer said the temporary federal money has been great but longtime solutions need to be more sustainable. 

“I appreciate the mayor’s willingness to help kind of convene some of those resources, and really have someone whose sole focus is on this,” Wimmer said. “Those of us that are in the childcare collaborative, it’s just a small piece of our regular job.” 

With no silver-bullet solution, Wimmer is eager to keep the issue in the spotlight. More insight and more discussion will hopefully lead to solutions.

That’s why Wimmer believes all minds need to be open to bring ideas to the table.