Asheville Watchdog: Buncombe Child Care Providers Face Financial Crisis When State Grants Evaporate in June

Children doing arts and crafts at a table in a classroom.
Verner Center for Early Learning

Written by Victoria A. Ifatusin, Asheville Watchdog.

Child care providers in Buncombe County will see millions of dollars in state grants evaporate at the end of June, forcing many to consider raising fees, cutting costs, or closing, which would worsen an already existing crisis in the area.

Across North Carolina, 29 percent of early child care centers are expected to close when the North Carolina Child Care Stabilization grants sunset, according to a survey by the North Carolina Child Care Resource and Referral Council. The state could see a loss of 91,660 slots for children to receive child care, according to the survey.

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Buncombe currently has 95 childcare facilities serving children up to age five, and advocates worry some will close or reduce services when the grants run out.

“Centers won’t have another pool of funds to keep supplementing wages of child care teachers,” said Greg Borom, director of the Western North Carolina Early Childhood Coalition. “That will most likely mean that we’ll lose teachers, which means that we’ll lose slots, and mean that entire child centers have to close.”

Jenny Vial, director of Child Care Resources at the Buncombe Partnership for Children, said the county has already lost about 11 percent of licensed child care slots since the pandemic.

The grants were part of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, also known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package, and were intended to help child care providers weather the pandemic. The grants have helped fund child care centers’ costs, including pay for workers.

The federal government provided a total of $1.3 billion to North Carolina. Last year, when passing the state budget, the General Assembly did not approve a proposed $300 million extension of the grants that would have run through 2025.

Since 2021, 87 Buncombe child care providers have received more than $20 million from the program, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). The money has allowed them to increase workers’ pay, give bonuses, provide additional training and mental health services, and improve child care facility equipment.

The grants enabled Buncombe child care centers such as the Christine W. Avery Learning Center, Verner Center for Early Learning, and the YWCA to increase starting wages from $12 to as much as $16. The Christine W. Avery Learning Center and YWCA additionally provided bonuses to educators.

Verner, which received about $232,000 this fiscal year and serves at least 232 children from infancy to age 5 each year, increased access to mental health services for staff and improved child care equipment, including its playgrounds.

“We have a lot of folks who are struggling with their mental health,” said Marcia Whitney, Verner’s president and CEO. “We’re trying to do things to support our team as best as we possibly can, but we had to increase the health insurance premiums for our team last year significantly, and that is basically money out of their pocket, and it’s not okay, and that’s with stabilization grant funding.”

Because there is such a high level of turnover in child care, Whitney said, she’s expecting teachers to leave after the stabilization grants disappear and she won’t be able to rehire for those vacancies.

Whitney has already had to reduce the number of full time teachers in some classrooms from three to two, and now uses a part time teacher floating between two classrooms, because of previous cuts in government funding.

“That is not enough adults to provide ideal support to children,” Whitney said.

CiCi Weston, the founder and CEO of Christine W. Avery Learning Center, said she was able to hire more staff, open up more classrooms, improve furniture and supplies, and accept more families into the program, thanks to the grants.

“The biggest thing is not being able to serve the families who need it,” Weston said, referring to the evaporating money. “We still are required to operate a quality [child care center] that the state of North Carolina says we have to do. So that’s going to be very, very difficult to maintain unless we find money somewhere.”

When the grants end, Weston said, she expects some staff may leave for better pay. If that happens, she will need to close classrooms, meaning that class sizes will expand. She will also need to add more children – who come from predominantly BIPOC and low-income families – to the center’s waitlist. For some families, the wait for child care there already stretches three years.

Weston said she’s  going to need to rely on funding from other sources, and the center’s chief impact officer has been applying for more grants than ever before.

The Christine W. Avery Learning Center and Verner have decided they are not planning to increase the child care tuition for families when the grants run out, because prices for families are already so expensive.

The loss of the grants will affect child care centers of all sizes.

Alissa Rhodes cares for five kids at the child care business she runs out of her Fletcher home.

She initially received about $12,800 quarterly through the grant program, but the amount dropped over time. She now gets $2,500 quarterly.

She is unsure how she will cover the loss of funding.

“It’s just something I’m gonna really have to pray about and talk with my family about,” Rhodes said.

Emily Friend, the mother of a 10-year-old, Serina, said that hypothetically, the loss of stabilization grants and its impact on child care availability could be a significant “deciding factor in whether or not to even have a child.”

Friend had difficulty finding childcare after Serina’s birth. She reached a point where she had to leave her two part time jobs to take care of her daughter.

“If I were thinking about having another child right now, if we were facing the same childcare issues, it would be an automatic no,” she said. “Because I would have to leave my career – I’m the main breadwinner of our household. I mean we would lose everything.”

Rachael Sawyer, the county’s Strategic Partnerships director, said the loss of grants would worsen an already severe child care crisis.

“We know there’s a shortage already, and we know it’s gotten worse lately with these vacancies in childcare centers,” she said. “So there’s a great amount of fear and concern about what organizations will do when that funding goes away.”

A “broken” system

Child care providers in Buncombe County have long faced challenges such as low pay, high turnover and long waitlists, Sawyer said, adding that those issues were exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We’ve had a crisis for 30 years,” said Kristi Snuggs, the president of Child Care Services Association. “I mean, childcare providers have been underpaid for years and years and years.”

Child care workers in North Carolina made an average of $14 an hour in 2023, according to the NCDHHS Division of Child Development and Early Education. That’s less than the average pay at companies like Costco, Target, Starbucks, and Verizon, which have starting hourly wages ranging from $17 to $20. The livable hourly wage in Asheville is $22.10, or $45,968 annually. The livable wage represents the minimum salary that would allow a full-time worker to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Buncombe.

“Early education as a field has chronically been underfunded,” Whitney said. “I’m embarrassed that’s the compensation we’re able to offer. And that’s with the supports that are about ready to go away.”

While the grant program has been essential for the past three years, “it was not intended to be a long-term solution,” said Vial of Child Care Resources at the Buncombe Partnership for Children.

Because of high turnover, some child care centers often have to hire new workers who have little experience. New workers often leave quickly after seeing what being a child care provider requires, Whitney said.

“We’ve literally had people … accept a job and then decide they can’t do it, show up on day one and within day two or three, be like ‘yeah, this is not what I signed up for,’” she said. “And we can’t blame them.”

On top of the low pay, the work can take a toll on a provider’s physical and mental health.

“For someone who has been doing this for almost 30 years, it’s really hard on my body,” Rhodes, the Fletcher child care provider, said. “My hips are hurting. It’s hard for me to get down on the floor so much, although I do.”

After the grants evaporate, Verner, the YWCA and the Christine W. Avery Learning Center anticipate a reduction in staff. This will lead to classroom closures, less available slots, and longer wait times for parents, they say. They don’t plan to reduce pay when the grants run out, but the YWCA and Christine W. Avery Learning Center are going to stop giving bonuses.

The child care crisis “is something we’re all navigating,” said Diana Sierra, CEO of the YWCA of Asheville. “And to me, [the crisis] shows that the system that we’re operating in is pretty broken.”

The burden on families

Whitney and Snuggs said child care is the “workforce behind the workforce,” because parents have to find care for their children before being able to work. But with the lack of funding and the county’s ongoing crisis, it’s impossible for some parents to work, said Jasmine Bright, chief impact officer for the Christine W. Avery Learning Center.

“You want to build the workforce, and you want people to work, but you have nowhere for them to put their children,” Bright said. “And you want the population to continue to grow, but you have nowhere to put these babies when they come into the world.” 

Advocates agree that when child care workers leave the workforce, it places a huge burden on families, especially those of color and low income.

Lower-income parents who qualify for child care vouchers still have to pay a portion of child care tuition and fees.

Even with financial assistance, parents may not be guaranteed immediate access to child care, said Borom of the Western North Carolina Early Childhood Coalition.

“Many parents just have absolutely no choice in front of them,” he said. “They are having to choose between being in the workforce or taking care of their child. It’s not like there’s a variety of options that are within reach.”

Emily Friend was on multiple waitlists for affordable early child care programs, but her hourly wage of roughly $8.25 and her husband’s pay from working at an Ingles warehouse were not enough to pay for child care and the couple’s other bills.

Neither of her jobs offered maternity leave, and when calculating how much child care would cost, the couple realized it wouldn’t have been affordable.

“It ended up with us figuring out that whatever we were going to have to pay in child care was barely going to make it worth it for me to stay at work,” she said.

The couple finally found child care when their daughter was about two, but the center didn’t accept the vouchers that Friend qualified for, making paying for the care difficult.

Snuggs said the brunt of the child care crisis usually falls on mothers.

“It’s an undue burden most of the time on mothers, because females are the primary caregivers, even in two-parent families,” she said. “Many mothers are choosing not to work, because they can’t afford to, or they’re giving up promotions, and foregoing raises because they’re struggling to find a stable child care environment for their children.”

Even when families are able to find care, some facilities do not operate full time.

“If the hours are 8:30 to 2:30, which also poses a barrier to many of our families that are trying to work, you can’t really work,” Shaunda Jackson, director of Resident Services at the Asheville Housing Authority, said. “If you don’t have family support or someone you know that can watch your child while you’re working, you do have to stay home.”

Sierra of the YWCA said her organization is seeing “more families in need.”

“So the more we can stabilize our workforce who are serving our children and families, the more we can have a better impact in terms of long-term outcomes for the children and families that we serve,” she said.

Buncombe County established an Early Childhood Education and Development Fund in 2018 that supports local early child care educators, said Sawyer, Buncombe’s Strategic Partnerships director.

The fund consists of almost $4 million that grows by 2 percent annually and is part of the county’s strategic plan for 2025 to make accessible early child care a priority. The county makes “grants to local organizations to help them with workforce development,” Sawyer said.

Whitney of Verner said the funds are a “great resource” in the county, while “many counties around our state do not have that.”

Despite the Buncombe fund, Sawyer acknowledged the county doesn’t have enough child care options to meet the community’s needs, especially when the state’s child care stabilization funds run out.

She said that county commissioners have approved a legislative agenda that seeks additional state funding support for early childhood education and pre-K.

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper released his recommended budget that would invest $745 million in child care and early education. His plan would provide $200 million for Child Care Stabilization Grants and $128.5 million for child care subsidies that will increase reimbursement rates for providers in rural and low-income communities.

The General Assembly will need to approve the measures, or “the child care crisis is going to worsen,” Snuggs said.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Victoria A. Ifatusin joined us through a 12-month fellowship as part of the prestigious Scripps Howard Fund’s Roy W. Howard Fellowship program. You can reach her via email at [email protected]. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit avlwatchdog.org/donate.