CHATHAM — As a concrete step toward helping young families afford to live in town year-round, selectmen are examining the possibility of offering child care vouchers to subsidize the cost of preschool care.
The recommendation is one made by the town’s economic development committee in 2016 and brought to the fore by the new Chatham 365 Task Force.
Though several different models are under consideration, under one plan, Chatham families with pre-kindergarten aged children would receive a voucher they could present to a licensed preschool provider, which would then get payment directly from the town.
“It would not be need-based,” task force member Lindsay Bierwirth said. “Every single family would receive $6,000 toward pre-K.” Such a plan would cost the town an estimated $180,000 annually, and would be based on a similar program in Wellfleet.
Under the auspices of the task force, Bierwirth reviewed the recommendations of the economic development committee and found that some of the recommendations were put in place, such as funding increases for Monomoy Community Services. The committee found that young families have trouble staying in Chatham because of the high cost of living, including housing, but that easing the burden of child care costs would help.
“Are we going to solve the housing issue? No. But can we come up with some solutions, an effort that can put more money in people’s pockets that then can trickle down to help the housing issue? Yes,” Bierwirth said.
Having met with around a dozen town officials and child care providers, Bierwirth said the town can do more to reduce child care costs, but it will require a solution tailored to the needs of local parents, including those who work seasonal jobs.
“Their jobs are not nine to five. Your typical day care solutions are not going to help a seasonal family who works from four to 11 at a restaurant at night,” she said. The voucher would be usable at private day care providers in town, or for parents who commute to Hyannis or Orleans at preschools in those towns.
The 18-to-44-year-old population is declining in Chatham, and their average annual income is $42,500, Bierwirth said. Families pay around $106,000 to provide child care for a child from infancy through fifth grade, with annual costs of between $14,000 and nearly $18,000.
A voucher program would also have drawbacks, she said. The Monomoy schools provide an integrated preschool program for three- and four-year-old children on a sliding scale, which allows children with disabilities to be included in a classroom with other children. In Wellfleet, which provides $7,000 in preschool vouchers to families under a three-year-old program, enrollment dropped in the integrated preschool when parents had the ability to choose private preschools, which are typically more expensive. As a result, children with disabilities had less interaction with peers who did not have special needs.
“It did adversely affect their preschool integrated program,” said Florence Seldin, a resident and former superintendent of schools who is working with Bierwirth. “They found that they were having trouble recruiting children to come into that program.”
There are other potential approaches Chatham could take, Bierwirth said. Wellfleet also provides a program with the Cape Cod Children’s Place called “Sea Babies,” where teachers provide care for infants and toddlers up to three years of age. That program is located at the town’s council on aging, and is partially sponsored by Seamen’s Bank. In Provincetown, voters this year appropriated more than $300,000 to provide town-operated child care for infants and children up to age five, she said.
The goal of all these programs is to ease the burden on young year-round families, even if it doesn’t solve the housing crunch, Bierwirth said.
“Well, [with] three children, that’s $18,000 in a family’s pocket. It helps,” she said.
Seldin said she’s a strong believer in the need for more affordable housing, “but that’s longer term. This can be done, if not this year, then soon.”
Selectmen Chairman Dean Nicastro said the town has the ability to move quickly on worthwhile programs, as it did in establishing a full-time school resource officer earlier this year. Nicastro said he would like the board to see some sort of proposal in time for the next annual town meeting. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said any funding request would likely be presented to voters in a warrant article, and would therefore not sidetrack the ongoing budget preparations.
Selectman Cory Metters said some additional research needs to be done, but that the board needs a concrete action plan to follow. Board member Peter Cocolis agreed.
“It’s too easy to just kind of let it go,” he said. Board members agreed that the task force’s work needs to remain in the forefront.
Selectmen unanimously tasked Bierwirth to work with Town Manager Jill Goldsmith for a recommendation for a voucher program, and to provide the board of selectmen with an update before the end of January.
Earlier in the meeting, the board formally appointed the 11 members of the Chatham 365 Task Force, following the recommendations of Selectmen Cocolis and Shareen Davis. Those two board members, who proposed the creation of the task force, will now serve as its co-chairs. Other members will include Bierwirth, Bill Bystrom, Katie Fitz-Nickerson, Christopher Hercun, Brad Schiff, Tracy Shields, Alysia Sweeney, Brett Tolley and Danielle Tolley.