By CHRIS AADLAND, Reporter
MISSION, Ore. – A now-paused drastic increase in the cost to parents who send children to the tribally owned day care gave some families relief last month while putting pressure on tribal leaders as they ponder potential long-term solutions to meet a need for more child care options.
In late August, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) Education’s Ataw Myanasma Learning Center informed parents that day care rates would increase between 62% and 74%, saying the jump was needed to unlock additional grant funding for lower-income families, higher additional staff and increase wages.
For the families who don’t qualify for day care tuition assistance, the jump in rates would’ve meant hundreds of extra dollars a month in child care costs, leading one shocked family to press tribal leaders in the weeks that followed to address their concerns. That advocacy resulted in a Board of Trustees work session on Nov. 8 and a Special General Council meeting the following day.
Those meetings led to the tribe saying that it would not increase the rates – for now – but also reinforced the opinion of some tribal leaders of the need for a longer-term solution and to address other questions, such as how to eliminate a long waitlist for services at the tribally owned day care, that have languished for years.
“I see it as a partial victory,” said Denise Wickert, the CTUIR tribal member and parent of two who was facing sharp increases and pushed tribal leaders to address her concerns. “They acknowledged that more discussion needs to happen and that other options need to be looked at.”
While many families that rely on the AMLC for childcare would’ve been largely insulated from the increases because they qualify for subsidies for lower-income families, a handful of families who aren’t eligible would have faced the full price hike, according to information presented by the CTUIR Education Department and Department of Child and Family Services at the Nov. 8 Board work session.
Concern about the increase prompted leaders to reduce the amount to 20% before the special General Council meeting before further deciding to not increase rates at all.
Now that the rates will remain unchanged from 2022, the tribe will spend the next year re-examining its rate and financial assistance structure, as well as what other funding sources the tribe could access to expand services or help parents pay for care, said CTUIR Deputy Executive Director Jonetta Herrera. The pause, she said, was influenced by the feedback the tribe received about the increase from working parents.
“It was too big of a jump,” Herrera said, adding that tribal outreach to parents could have been better before deciding to increase the cost. “I just felt that we needed to take a step back and look at it differently.”
In the coming months, the tribe also will open a temporary facility to help eliminate the AMLC’s waitlist, which sat at 32 as of Nov. 8, as it looks to solidify a more permanent solution to meet needs.
Herrera said the semi-permanent modular building is expected to open in July and have room for approximately 35 children up to 2 or 3 years old. The structure will sit at the community services area of the Nixyáawii Neighborhood subdivision, she added.
Price hikes hit some harder
Most CTUIR parents who take their children to the AMLC for care, or rely on one of several other facilities approved by the tribe, have some or all of their daycare costs subsidized through the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), which is a federal program CTUIR receives money from to help low-income families afford child care.
The CCDF is overseen by the CTUIR Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). Overall, 90 families receive financial assistance through the program. The Education Department administers the AMLC.
Before the proposed increases, parents were charged between $578 and $727 a month depending on the child’s age. Head Start program tuition had been $289 a month but became free beginning in September.
If the proposed increases had gone into effect, parents would have had to pay up to $1,190 a month per child.
Increasing the rates, as originally planned, would have allowed the tribe to unlock CCDF funding and make more families who previously didn’t qualify for the subsidies because they made too much money eligible for the program. It would have also allowed the AMLC to hire more staff and increase pay, which officials at the Nov. 8 meeting said would reduce turnover in the low-paying field and lead to higher quality care.
About 10 families would have been responsible for paying the full cost of care at the AMLC, Education Department staff said during the Nov. 8 meeting.
But for Wickert and her fiancé, Julian “J.D.” Gone III, who were among several other families who take their children to the AMLC who wouldn’t qualify for assistance under the CCDF expansion because they still made too much money, the rate hikes were unaffordable.
It would have meant an increase of more than 70%, or nearly $940 a month for Wickert and Gone to take their two young children to the AMLC – extra money the two CTUIR employees didn’t have, she said.
Despite both being established in their careers and grateful for their jobs, which come with good benefits, reliable hours and great work-life balance, Wickert said their government job wages – coupled with the costs of raising two children and living expenses – meant that they were still struggling financially.
Had the increases taken effect, Wickert said they would have had to make difficult decisions, such as selling one of the family’s two vehicles, one of them taking on a second job or one of them quitting their job to stay home with their young children.
Wickert and Gone said they would like to be saving for a house, but are still living paycheck to paycheck after moving to a two-bedroom apartment to be close to work and the AMLC. Gone had left a higher-paying construction job to work for the tribe because it would allow him to spend more time at home and have a reliable and flexible schedule to be more present for his children.
“We agreed that it was going to be tight financially,” Wickert said. “And then when this happened … for us, I was just like ‘no, we can’t do this. We can’t make this work.’”
So, Wickert said she began to reach out for answers after she learned that their rates would jump dramatically in the Fall. She said she contacted a board member, who encouraged her to appeal to the tribe through a letter and comment card submission.
Wickert said she spoke up during a fall General Council meeting and said that she hadn’t received a response from the tribe. And after finally receiving an answer that said the rate changes couldn’t be undone, an unsatisfied Wickert was told she could petition to hold a special General Council meeting to address her concerns.
Wickert said it’s important to continue sending her children – Julian IV, age 2, and 1-year-old Elijah – to the AMLC because the curriculum centers around CTUIR culture and values and employs community members she knows and trusts. Wickert and Gone also said their two children enjoy spending the day there and that the kids feel safe with AMLC staff.
“I know, if I drop them off, they’re going to be in good hands,” Gone said. “I can go to work and not have to worry – I just know they’re going to do a great job.”
A question of priority
For the Board members and tribal officials working to offset the drastic daycare increases, addressing the issue also reminded them of unanswered questions about the long-term vision for CTUIR’s approach to child care and education: Should the tribe be treating the service as a baby sitting business or as a tribal service and critical part of a child’s education? And how could the tribe meet the demand for child care services and how would that be paid for?
Tribal leaders have sought to answer some of those questions for years, then Board Chair Kat Brigham said during the Nov. 8 work session. Brigham said she could remember debates she described as “a huge fight” about what sort of approach – treating child care as no more than baby sitting or a crucial first step in a child’s development that the tribe should play a large role in – and the necessary facilities going as far back as 1997 or 1998.
A 2022 Board resolution also called on the tribe to restructure child care and early learning programs and expand services.
Whether the new Board, which was sworn in on Nov. 29, prioritizes child care options is as yet unclear.
The Board didn’t take any official action or otherwise officially direct tribal staff to pursue a specific strategy or long-term solution in November but expressed hope that staff could present potential solutions to the Board soon so leaders could settle on a long-term strategy and provide certainty over pricing in the short term.
Still, some Board members who were re-elected said they planned to advocate for the issue to be among the new Board’s top priorities, with some top CTUIR staff members saying they also planned to ensure it’s not ignored.
“I don’t want that conversation to stop, regardless of who’s sitting here,” Board Member Corinne Sams said at the Nov. 8 meeting. “How we’re going to address the services moving forward needs to be resolved.”
What is known, is the need for additional childcare services.
In addition to the AMLC waitlist of more than 30, the demand could potentially be greater; as of late July, there were 305 enrolled tribal youth under age 13 in the area who would be eligible for childcare or early-learning services, according to information presented at the Nov. 8 meeting. Another 220 or so under age 13 are enrolled but don’t live in the area.
At the meeting, Sams said she believes access to quality child care in their early years “is huge” and “affects everything after” in helping young children develop and thrive.
Wickert said quality child care should be an affordable option for all CTUIR families and non-tribal parents who work for the tribe and challenged the new Board to tackle the issue. She said she is “happy to be a thorn in the side” if it’s not being prioritized.
Ideally, Wickert said she’d like to see the tribe treat childcare as an essential service and cover 100% of the costs for parents who send kids to the AMLC or a private center approved by DCFS and provide stipends to tribal members who live outside of the area and to CTUIR employees who aren’t tribal members. She said that it’s also important that daycare staff are paid enough to support themselves and given opportunities for professional development to ensure children receive high quality care.
“I just really want this to work, not only for us, but for everybody,” Wickert said. “I couldn’t imagine this not being addressed.”