Tennessee Child Care Providers Face Uncertain Future | City Limits

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Kristie Ryan, executive director at Fannie Battle Day Home

Kristie Ryan, executive director at Fannie Battle Day Home

For the past three years, American Rescue Plan funds have helped child care centers stay alive to the tune of $24 billion. The final round of funding is set to be distributed by Sept. 30

“We are sitting at a point where we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Kristie Ryan, executive director at Fannie Battle Day Home for Children in East Nashville. “Because we know that we’ve increased all of our expenses, and now our income is going to go down significantly moving forward.”

Independent think tank the Century Foundation projects that 1,199 Tennessee child care centers will close as a result of American Rescue Plan Act stabilization grants ending — adding up to an estimated 89,989 children potentially losing care. The first two rounds of grants brought $540 million to 2,875 centers in Tennessee, including 357 in Davidson County. 

Fannie Battle received more than $400,000 in the first two rounds. Much of that went to hiring and retaining staff, Ryan says. The organization already fundraises more than 50 percent of its funds to operate the center, and offers sliding-scale prices for low-income families.

At Glen Leven Day School in Berry Hill, the first two rounds of stabilization funds (around $230,000 each) bumped base pay for employees from $12 to $16 per hour. Executive director Debbie Ferguson says she’ll use the final round of a projected $175,000 to bring it up to $17.  

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen when these funds dry up,” Ferguson says. “I really don’t know. It’s a scary thought.”

Along with paying more to keep staff, centers have also seen the cost of food jump an estimated 20 percent since before the pandemic. On top of that, March’s Covenant School shooting and a July incident at a local day care — when a man reportedly threatened to blow up a church’s day care center — brought attention to the need for updated security measures. When the Scene speaks with staff at King’s Daughters Child Development Center in Madison, they’re installing a security fence.

“It’s almost feeling like when the pandemic happened, we didn’t know what direction to go in,” says Rhonda Trumbo, executive director of King’s Daughters. “It’s kind of feeling like that again. We’ve had a few years we’ve known this help has been here. What are we going to do when that help is not there?” 

Many providers have been avoiding passing the buck to parents, but they will likely have to raise tuition to keep up with the costs. 

“We’ve been trying to hold off passing the [cost] to our clients and families because they’re struggling already,” says Trumbo.  

Even before the pandemic, profit margins were small for child care centers. They save some rent money if they’re in a church, like Glen Leven, or can fundraise if they’re a nonprofit, like Fannie Battle.  

The state has stepped in to help, though the new numbers are nowhere near the $24 billion federal and $550 million statewide over the past three years. Applications just closed for the inaugural round of annual $5 million Child Care Hub pilot grants aimed at establishing newly licensed child care locations from the $220 million federal Child Care Development Block Grant. In addition, the state approved a part of a $15 million Child Care Improvement Fund. 

It’s the staffing struggle that feels unprecedented, says Ferguson, who organizes a weekly Zoom support group of sorts, inviting more than 100 providers statewide. Ferguson, who has worked in the field for 31 years, says a lack of staff affects the quality of care and puts more work on the existing employees — causing more of them to walk away. Plus, there’s a lack of consistency for the kids and a lack of lesson-planning time for teachers.

“I’ve never been in this place,” Ferguson says. “Having to look at the financial piece, which is a huge burden, and where those funds are coming from. Trying to find qualified staff, because we really are at a place where I started looking for someone with a bachelor’s degree and a couple of years of experience. That wasn’t out there. I kept lowering my standards and said, ‘OK let’s go associate’s degree, and a year of experience’ — none of that. I got to the point where I was like, ‘If they’re breathing and trainable.’”

Local centers hope something is coming down the pike. 

“I just don’t think our society actually understands the importance of providing quality care and how much our kids are developing lifelong skills that they’re going to use for the rest of their life,” Ferguson says. “It seems really backwards that I’m still only paying $16 an hour for someone to build a brain.”

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