Local experts call for more child care providers, funding

The Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters is hosting two forums – March 28 and April 26 – to raise awareness about the lack of child care providers and to find solutions.

Leah Pigatti, at right, moderates the Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters' forum about the local child care crisis. Pictured, from left, are Jennifer Tolle, Zoe Mattson, Hailey Sharp, Kari Smith and Leeza Branstrom.
Shannon Geisen/Enterprise

The Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters (LWV) initiated the first of two forums on Tuesday, March 28 about the lack of child care in the region.

LWV president Carolynne White points out that child care is not only an issue for parents, but also for employers who need to attract and retain workers.

Moderator Leah Pigatti reiterated that in her introduction. “Child care is really everybody’s business … Everyone should be concerned about child care.”

Pigatti said these forums are an effort to raise awareness and find solutions.

Tuesday’s panel of local experts included the following:


  • Leeza Branstrom, a Hubbard County family child care licensor;
  • Kari Smith, a veteran daycare provider;
  • Hailey Sharp, a new provider recently licensed;
  • Zoe Mattson, a new mother who struggled with finding child care;
  • Jennifer Tolle, a Hubbard County foster care licensor.

A shortage of child care

Branstrom reported there are currently 42 licensed child care providers in Hubbard County, with three more currently in the application process.

This is almost the lowest number of providers it’s ever been, she said.

Providers are licensed for between 10 and 14 children. Of the 10 children, only three may be an infant or toddler, per state regulations. An “infant” is defined as six weeks to 12 months old. “Toddlers” are 12 to 24 months old.

Branstrom noted there are a couple child care centers in Park Rapids.

No large employers currently offer daycare onsite. Branstrom said she’s also not aware of any financial assistance that an employer provides to its employees for child care costs.

A few providers offer care outside of regular work hours, which are 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The issue becomes when does the daycare provider sleep, because there must be adult supervision, even if the child is sleeping, Branstrom said. “That becomes tough, and it’s very limited in our area.”

Sick children must stay home with their parents or relatives. It’s in no one’s best interest to spread germs, Branstrom said.

“We need to acknowledge the exceptional care we have with our providers in Hubbard County,” she concluded. “They are very diligent, every day, on what they do and how they care for those children … I watch each and every one of them have a passion for the children they care for, as well as being compliant to the hundreds of licensing rules that they’re supposed to upkeep.”


Many work at least 10 hours per day, with zero breaks, she added.

Quality care is not the issue, Branstrom said, rather it’s the shortage of providers.

More funding is needed to support existing daycares, she suggested. When a toy breaks or equipment fails, the provider pays out of their own pocket, for example.

Tolle suggested that finding more substitutes would allow providers to go to doctor’s appointments or attend their own children’s event without closing their daycares.

“It’d be tough,” Branstrom said. Background checks and 12 hours of annual training are required of substitutes. They also must be 18 years or older.

Making it a career choice

Smith started her daycare in 2011.

If it weren’t for her husband, daughter and daughter-in-law, Smith said she probably wouldn’t still be in the business. All three are trained substitutes for her daycare.

Smith pointed out that her rate includes supplies, food, a safe environment, utilities and a guaranteed spot at her daycare.


Since there is no flexibility in how many children can be enrolled, Smith said she can only raise rates to make more money.

She takes one week of unpaid vacation and one week paid. Her sick time is also paid.

Smith would like to see financial assistance for middle-class families to pay for child care.

Sharp became licensed as a child care provider last week. She previously worked at MAHUBE-OTWA and has a social work degree.

“Like any business, it takes a lot of money to start up,” Sharp said.

On a positive note, she said there are startup grants through Child Care Aware of Minnesota ( and Moorhead Community Action. She’s looking for more grants to help her build a quality, safe environment and acquire educational toys.

The amount of paperwork can be overwhelming to get licensed, but Sharp said, “I think it should be a strenuous process, because we want good people applying for this.”

Branstrom said she hopes more individuals make child care a career choice. “I would like good, quality applicants that have a passion for caring for children and want to shape their little minds.”


Smith is currently working with the Panthers First entrepreneurial program to encourage Park Rapids Area High School students to consider opening a daycare in the future.

The primary barrier is that it’s costly to operate a child care business, Branstrom said. In addition to supplies, she said there are home repair costs, training and fire marshall fees.

Daycare centers find it difficult to be profitable because of the required specialized licensure, space needs (like a sprinkler system) and large, specially trained staff, she continued.

In order to retain those day care center teachers, they must be paid well, “so it really comes down to the workforce,” Branstrom said.

‘It’s a struggle’

Mattson’s daughter is 16 months. She spoke about the difficulty in finding daycare.

“When you find out you’re pregnant, you tell your significant other and then start calling daycare,” she said.

She called 12 providers before finding an opening. That daycare closed after three months.

“It’s a struggle,” Mattson said.


She had to rely on parents, grandparents and friends to care for her daughter until Sharp opened her daycare.

Tolle agreed. She has three children. Because of capacity limitations and a shortage of daycare, Tolle also relied on family members until she found an opening.

Park Rapids Chamber of Commerce President Derek Ricke asked about a centralized tracking system so parents don’t have to make 30 phone calls.

Smith said a tracking system is a great idea – and has been suggested at past child care forums, but nothing came of it.

She added that about 20-25 licensed providers communicate openings, closings and other related news in a private Facebook group.

One daycare is going on maternity leave, another is closing for the summer and another is closing permanently, Smith said, “So our phones have been ringing.”

The entire forum can be viewed at .

A second LWV forum will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26 at the Northwoods Bank community room. Its focus will be on what can be done to improve the child care situation.


Resources for finding child care

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
What To Read Next
Get Local