HELENA — Child-care providers in Montana can start applying for a share of $31 million in federal funds, meant to bolster their business and make a dent in the state’s shortage of child-care slots.
The Gianforte administration launched the application process Thursday, and some 400 providers attended an on-line meeting that evening to learn about it, state officials said.
“This is a lot of money, and a lot more money than we’ve ever had directly for child-care stabilization,” said Jamie Palagi, head of the state Early Childhood and Family Support Division. “So it took a little time to get it ready.”
The American Rescue Plan Act, approved by Democrats in Congress in March, allocated $110 million to Montana to boost child care, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.
The state already had a shortage of child-care slots, but state officials have said 171 child-care programs closed during the pandemic.
The Gianforte administration this summer approved spending $31 million of the money for “child care stabilization,” which can cover operators’ rent, mortgage, utilities, payroll costs, maintenance and equipment, among other things.
Licensed child-care operators can start applying to the state for the money, and, if approved, get amounts equal to 80 percent to 100 percent of their annual operating costs, Palagi said. The state hopes to get the money out no later than January, she added.
The state has been contacting child-care providers directly to inform them about the grant-application process and plans another “town hall” on-line meeting October 13.
A total of $68 million is available for child-care stabilization, and Palagi said the state may dip into the rest of that money if the need is there.
Advocates and operators have said the biggest problem facing child care in Montana is a shortage of workers, who average $11 an hour. Providers say they have trouble recruiting and retaining staff at such low wages, while most parents can’t afford to pay higher fees that might support higher wages.
The grants now available can pay for personnel costs, but Palagi noted the funds are “one-time-only” money.
Still, she said providers who attended Thursday evening’s on-line meeting had some ideas on how to use the money to bolster employee compensation.
“In some cases, directors aren’t necessarily giving raises, but they might be providing free child care for their staff, they may be paying their school loan payment or other types of educational opportunities,” she said. “So they are finding really creative ways to recruit and retain staff as well.”
The Gianforte administration is preparing several other programs to use the rest of the $42 million in federal funds for child care in Montana, including grants to start child-care businesses in areas where they’re needed, business assistance to providers, and child-care assistance to some health-care workers.
Those programs should be under way in the next few months, Palagi said.