HELENA — Last year, the Ray Bjork Learning Center was closed down as a part of budget cuts. Since then, Helena Public Schools and St. Peter’s Health have reached an agreement, allowing St. Peter’s to utilize the space for child care.
“This is a service that I believe is going to offer a critical need around our community in daycare or child care,” says Superintendent of Helena Public Schools, Rex Weltz.
Ray Bjork was closed in the spring of 2023, forcing the relocation of five programs, including special ed and behavioral support programs.
Helena Public Schools reached an agreement with St. Peter’s Health just this week. St. Peter’s Health will be utilizing the Ray Bjork building, making it code-compliant to function as a childcare facility. Wade Johnson, CEO of St. Peter’s Health, says they hope to open the space by August 1st for 180 0-6 year old children of St. Peter’s employees. They are also looking at the possibility of adding an after-school program to serve an additional 60 children.
“We had been looking at expanding Pete's Place for quite some time because of the backlog that we have, the number of employees that we have that need childcare that can't get it. And so, this was just one of those opportunities that came together perfectly well with the school district’s needs and what they were wanting to do with their facilities and what we were looking for; literally was just a perfect match,” says Johnson.
This decision to provide childcare to employees is part of a wider trend by businesses across Montana in the face of what are known as childcare deserts says Amy Watson, the State Economist with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
“We’ve seen a lot of engagement from the business community to be able to be a partner in resolving some of these issues,” says Watson.
A childcare desert is where licensed childcare capacity in a certain area meets less than 1/3 of the estimated demand. Currently, the entire state of Montana is a desert for infant child care and the state’s total childcare capacity met only 44% of the estimated demand, with about 60% of counties qualifying as childcare deserts. While Lewis and Clark County is able to meet 64% of the demand for child care, that still means that 36% of children are not receiving licensed child care.
This lack of child care primarily impacts working parents in Montana. While this was an issue faced before the pandemic, Watson says that the health crisis exacerbated the issue. While total capacity has rebounded to the point we were at pre-pandemic, the number of providers has slightly fallen. Watson says there are still an estimated 26,000 children in the state who are not receiving licensed child care.
“So, we have total license capacity right now at over 20,000 slots in the state, and we estimate that there are about 46,000 children who may need care. And that number has grown as well as Montana's population has been growing very rapidly over the last few years up,” says Watson.
Do note, that due to data availability, DLI was not able to include in their analysis any unlicensed child care providers.
Thankfully, 2023 saw a small change in the state’s plight.
“Fortunately, we did see an increase in childcare capacity over the last year of about 1,500 slots. So, in 2023 capacity did grow slightly faster than our population did, so we did make some improvements there. But overall, we're still significantly under-supplied as a state,” says Watson.