Antigo neighborhood comes collectively to assist reopening a reimagined little one care heart

ANTIGO, Wis. (WSAW) – During the summer of 2021 inside a building with green and red striped awnings on Fifth Avenue in Antigo, you would hear the sounds of giggles and wonder coming from 38 children playing, learning, and growing while their parents were working away. A few months later in October, that same building would fall silently as the doors of My Lil Angels child care closed for the last time.

“Then we had another center that lost two teachers that then had to scale back in regards to the amount (sic) of children that they could receive,” recalled Angie Close, the executive director of Langlade County Economic Development. “So that had created a huge challenge for our businesses to know where they’re going to take their children.”

“Some of them were teachers so those teachers were very panicked,” Dr. Julie Sprague, the superintendent of the Unified School District of Antigo remembered. The district was already short-staffed due to COVID-19-related absences.

“We had a lot of trouble finding enough subs, so those teachers were really concerned if they didn’t have a reliable and safe place to take their children that they would miss even more work. And then what?

Close said the Antigo area lost about 42 child care spots last fall.

“It’s crucial to have both parents in our workforce right now and in order to have that, we have to have adequate childcare,” Close urged.

Langlade County Economic Development held community meetings to discuss what businesses heard from their employees and what could be done to get those employees the child care they needed. Sprague was part of those discussions.

“While we didn’t actually determine any ideas that came to fruition at those meetings, it certainly helped us as a district, not feel like we were on an island daycare or lack of daycare options is really, as you are well aware, ( a) nationwide issue,” she said. “Then enter Gabby Sorano.”

“Our daughter is 5 and our son just turned 3. So through COVID, he lost his spot at the daycare center we were previously at and that really opened my eyes to the lack of availability and options here in the Antigo area,” Gabby Sorano said.

The Birnamwood second grade teacher grew up around child care: her mom worked at Wausau Child Care; through high school and college she would work at centers, and her love of children sent her on the path to becoming a teacher for the past nine years. Once she heard the downtown child care center closed in Antigo, a dream formed of opening her own center in that same space.

She got in touch with Close in December and the two brainstormed what Sorano calls the “trilemma of child care”: keeping expenses for parents realistic, compensating early childhood educators fairly, and being able to provide high-quality care all at once.

When they were developing the business plan, the balance of expenses and revenue was not sustainable. They were coming up with a negative balance of $6,000 every month, not including temporary government grants. So, they devised a tiered plan to help bridge some of that gap. Employers in the area could pay to reserve spots for employees as a benefit.

“So, depending upon the tier, that business would receive a certain number of spots at the center and also a certain discount to their families each week,” Sorano explained.

The two presented to Antigo’s school district and board and Close said they jumped at the opportunity to take the highest tier, reserving 10 spots for district staff at what would become the Antigo Child Care Center come July.

“I think just a big sigh of relief,” Sprague thought after sharing the news with staff, “especially for those either waiting for a newborn or loving a newborn. And just wanting to make sure that we can have both an employee who can comfortably come to work do a good job and know that their child is well cared for. That’s the best of both worlds.”

Sprague said this is not the first time the district has looked at child care challenges as part of an underlying cause for the staffing shortages they face. Schools everywhere have seen declining numbers of people going into education generally, but rural districts like Antigo often see fewer applicants as people look to move to areas with more resources and activities. She said many of their current staff do not live in Antigo, but commute from larger communities for that reason. She hopes this employee child care benefit will not only draw in more candidates but get people to live in the same community they work.

The district is using ESSER funds, which come from the federal government in response to the pandemic. Child care is one use that is allowed for those funds. Districts could also look to its Fund 80 dollars, which allows districts to exceed their revenue limits for a specific purpose. The local school board has to have community meetings about the specific use and vote on it, but it is ultimately a local decision paid for by local property taxes.

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s director of school financial services team said they have been getting a lot of questions about how to use both of these funds and he has seen Fund 80 be used for districts to create 4K programs, which have since become common around the state.

”I can remember in the mid-90s, specific programs for specific groups. This is when we talk about Fund 80, Fund 80 needs to be something that’s available for all students; it’s by definition a community,” Mark Elworthy said.

In reviewing options of how to address child care before Sorano offered the tiered plan, Sprague and Close said they talked with other districts in Langlade County, Elcho and White Lake, which offer child care programs physically in their districts. Close said that option is a far greater expense for employers to take on compared to the tiered program. Sprague said that option was not realistic for the Antigo district for a few reasons.

“I knew, as did other members of our district, that it would be too difficult to take on that responsibility, number one. We weren’t the experts in daycare and licensing certainly. And number two, if we have trouble filling our current teaching positions, how could we add more and hope to find enough candidates?”

Sprague said she sees a need for quality early childhood education, not only so parents can go to work, but to have children be ready for school. She said these types of partnerships with early childhood educators will be key in addressing the needs of children from birth through their school careers.

Volm Companies also signed on to the lowest tier, securing six spots for its employees. Between the business partnerships, parent payments, and temporary pandemic-related government grants, Sorano said she has been able to pay her staff wages comparable to at least the state average and offer insurance — a rarity in the field. While recruiting and maintaining staff has been a challenge for many child care centers around the state, given the often low pay and lack of benefits, Sorano said she was able to get to full staff quickly with what she was able to offer.

“The biggest thing right now, just from what I’ve experienced too, is just making staff feel, you know appreciated and that they can be themselves, and being a supportive work environment is kind of the key to attracting employees right now.”

The center opened in July to families and is already booked through next year. As she looks to the future, she said she will be tweaking the tiered plan. While the community needs all of the 35 spots Antigo Child Care Center offers, each business partner only needs a small portion.

“So right now, our tier one partner holds 10 spots. Tier 2 would hold eight, and tier 3 would hold six. So, none of them have filled all of their spots necessarily, so we would have to, you know, maybe rethink about bringing those numbers down a little bit to make it work for, perhaps, more businesses in town.”

While she adjusts to the needs of the community, this self-proclaimed dreamer said she has goals to not only make the current center better, but to hopefully offer a summer program by next year, and potentially open another center in the area down the road .

“It’s crazy to think that you know, once this is all kind of just an idea and a dream, and for it to be reality… Right now it’s just it’s incredible. It’s, it’s crazy and amazing all at the same time.”

For those interested in replicating this model, Sorano said to budget for more expenses than you may think, meet with community partners, research government resources, do not be afraid to adapt and make changes, and most of all, ask for help.

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