Child Care, Money

Jameson Webb, 5, creates a rocket out of MagnaTiles during play time at Rhiannon Shook’s early childhood care program, A Place To Grow, March 8, 2017, on South 19th Avenue.

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A second injection of coronavirus relief money is on its way to help bolster staffing in before and after school programs around Gallatin County.

The Gallatin County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to approve $309,000 in American Rescue Plan money for the Greater Gallatin United Way’s kidsLINK program, which provides 21 before- and after-school programs around the county.

The program is only the second recipient from the county’s $22 million in coronavirus relief money. Gallatin College was the first earlier this month, receiving nearly $2 million to expand trade programs.

This money would go toward hiring at least 55 new staff members for the before- and after-school programs, according to documents from the commission meeting.

Danica Jamison, the President and CEO of the Greater Gallatin United Way, said during the meeting that over 20 years, the nonprofit had grown the program to 32 sites throughout the county.

Then, the pandemic shut down all of them. After the shutdown, about 100 employees needed to be paid but could not work for three months, Jamison said. Many went to go and find work elsewhere.

But the parents who relied on the program were affected, too.

Jamison said that $1.3 million was invested annually into the 32 sites — some of which are run by the Greater Gallatin United Way, others through partnerships with schools in the county.

The program provided before- and after-school engagement to about 3,200 kids.

She said about 400,000 additional working hours were produced by parents working full time because child care was taken care of for them through the kidsLINK program.

“They wouldn’t be able to keep their jobs without the kidsLINK program,” Jamison said.

Finding child care was a problem for families in Montana before the pandemic but was further exacerbated by shutdowns, economic woes and worker shortages, according to the Montana Department of Labor’s Labor Day Report. About 55,000 parents reduced hours due to a lack of child care.

“Everybody understood over the years that after-school programming was really important, but during the pandemic, when it started going away, everyone began understanding how important it was to our economy,” County Commissioner Scott MacFarlane said during the meeting on Tuesday.

The fresh influx of money could help, but won’t solve all of the program’s staffing problems.

Karen DeCotis, the kidsLINK program director, said that the staff is a mixture of school employees and Greater Gallatin United Way employees, but the bulk comes from the partner schools.

And for the school partners, money that could be secured to help pay staff might hit a snag because those schools are bound by their payroll policies, DeCotis said.

“We would like to pay them more but we can’t,” DeCotis said in an interview with the Chronicle.

The $309,000 would put a dent in the program’s needs, but kidsLINK is still about $176,000 shy from returning to full strength. Jamison said that fundraising in the community and grants could help get the additional money.

She hoped that the rest would be secured by the end of the school year.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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