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Daycare closure impacts 50 families

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | May 24, 2023 2:00 AM

Nature Kids Daycare last week announced it was closing its doors permanently after it ran into financial difficulty with rent and building upkeep. Its last day will be May 31.

The nonprofit 501(c 3 daycare serves about 50 families in Columbia Falls. It had long rented the former Rex’s Pawn on U.S. Highway 2, but the current owners of the property had raised the rent to $5,500 a month, said director Nicole Brown.

The owners also wanted them to pay additional to upgrade the heat and other facets of the building — a situation that proved untenable. Brown said they were already back on rent for April because it cost so much to heat the place in February and March. They had recently been given a three-day eviction notice, Brown noted.

The daycare had found a new place, but it also meant they would have to shut down for a month between moving out and moving into the new location. A local church offered to help in the interim, but Brown said it didn’t meet certain requirements for insurance and they simply couldn’t afford to close for a month, then reopen.

The daycare business is difficult, she noted. It’s hard to find help that will work for $14 an hour. Brown said many of her employees would get free daycare as a way to make the wage work, but that, in turn, also meant the children of employees were taking up spots.

Daycares are highly regulated. For example, state requirements require one employee for every four infants, Brown noted.

The state also regulates a food program that reimburses daycares for meals. But Brown said during a recent inspection, she was found to not have served enough milk as per regulations.

She said she told the inspector that some kids simply don’t drink milk, and in order to meet the program’s requirements, she’d have to buy milk, and then dump it.

She claimed the inspector told her to do as much.

As it sits now, she might have to pay the food program hundreds of dollars back, because she didn’t meet the state mandated meal requirements.

The frustration is palpable with the entire business.

“There were months I took out personal loans to pay the rent,” she said. “But it was important to provide quality care and education.”

What will happen to the families that rely on her isn’t entirely clear. Another daycare has opened in Columbia Falls, but it isn’t as large, she noted.

She was one of the few facilities that would transport kids from school to daycare. They were also one of the few that would take kids with disabilities and other issues, like autism.

But after 23 years in the childcare business, Brown has had enough.

“I’m going to rest,” she said. “I’m tired.”

For parent Anna Easley, she and her husband are looking at piecing a childcare plan together. They have an 8-month-old. The best option is a rare opening at a daycare in Whitefish, she said, or they’ll try to adjust their schedules. Easley works from home and her husband works at the airport.

“Finding infant childcare is nearly impossible,” Easley said. The problem of childcare is a “huge community issue,” she noted and parents need help if places like Columbia Falls are going to attract and keep young families, she noted.

She sympathized with Brown.

“She has done everything she can,” Easley said.

There are some options for parents with school-aged children.

The Boys and Girls Club of Glacier Country has a waiting list at its Columbia Falls facility, said vice president Pamela Koller, but it does have openings after-school programs at its Evergreen facility.

The problem, at least currently, is the club can’t transport kids from Columbia Falls to Evergreen, so parents or family members would have to do that, Koller noted.

The Boys and Girls Club in Columbia Falls has a capacity of 65 children in its after school program.