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Shortage of child care a concern in western ND

WATFORD CITY -- Nikki Darrington has her dream job, working as a soil conservationist for the National Resources Conservation Service in Watford City.

But the mother of two had to postpone her start date by two months while she waited for child care to become available, after being on the waiting list for 1 1/2 years.

The agency has another job opening and a perfect candidate, but that woman is also waiting for child care, Darrington said.

"She could walk in the door and start working," she said.

Katie Barber quit working as a public defender in Williston after she had her second child and couldn't find infant care. The Watford City woman said she'd like to work at least part time, but she can't find child care for her kids, now 4 and 7 months.

Barber said she's frustrated that legislators in Bismarck are not doing more to address the shortage of child care, particularly critical in rapid-growth areas of western North Dakota, where the oil boom is also creating a workforce shortage.

"They're saying it's not our problem," Barber said. "But in this part of the state it is, it's really all our problem."

Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommended $5 million in child care facility grants, which is included in the Department of Commerce budget.

But Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said that while assistance for buildings is needed, the child care centers are struggling to retain qualified staff, especially those that are competing with higher wages in the Oil Patch.

"Do we want families to come to these areas?" Hawken said. "If we want families, then you need to have the quality child care."

Hawken was the prime sponsor of House Bill 1422, which originally sought to provide $15 million to support child care services and establish a quality rating and improvement system to improve the quality of the programs.

The bill passed 85-7, but with several amendments from the House Human Services Committee that eliminated most of the funding. The bill now provides $2.1 million for child care stabilization initiatives, including recruitment and retention efforts and assistance to develop business plans.

Committee chairman Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, said child care operations have a variety of models, including some that are for-profit and some that are nonprofit and do not pay property taxes. Committee members were concerned that subsidizing the operations could create an unfair playing field, Porter said.

The committee also amended the bill to change some of the ratios of children to staff members. For example, the bill says one staff member can care for up to five children under 18 months of age, and one staff member may care for an unlimited number of children between ages 6 and 12.

The goal of the amendment is to find a balance between a business model that works and a ratio that is safe for children, Porter said.

"It's very possible that we can be able to get more flexibility and still have safe, well-run day care systems across the state," Porter said.

The bill also says employers that offer on-site child care that is not open to the public can be exempt from licensing requirements.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said she has many concerns about the amendments to the bill, particularly the ratios of children to staff.

"That part of this bill has to come out of there," said Heckaman, a former teacher. "That's really destructive to the growth of the children, the morale of the staff."

Heckaman plans to testify before the Senate Human Services Committee at 9 a.m. Monday, when it holds a hearing on the bill. She said a waiting list for child care of up to two years is not uncommon, and it's not just an issue in western North Dakota. Her town of New Rockford has a waiting list for child care.

She also plans to suggest that grant funding be added back into the bill that could offset some of the overhead costs for child care centers.

"It's economic development," Heckaman said. "If we don't have child care, we're not going to have people in the workforce."