Warren, MN may be a blueprint for how to fix the nation’s childcare crisis

Story by John Lauritsen, WCCO-TV
Published: Feb. 27, 2023 at 7:05 PM CST
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WARREN, Minn. (Valley News Live) - Finding available and affordable childcare has become a nation-wide problem. It’s estimated that 51% of parents now live in childcare deserts, which is why the city of Warren in northern Minnesota is getting a lot of attention.

John Lauritsen traveled north to show us the unique way the city saved its daycare center, and likely, its future.

“It’s like this every morning, ‘Do I get to go to daycare today?’” said parent Kelly Pahlen.

Her 3-year-old daughter, Peyton, is one of 48 kids attending Little Sprouts Learning Center in Warren.

“They paint, and they dance, and they sing, and they keep them busy,” said Pahlen.

But a few years before Peyton was even born, Little Sprouts almost closed its doors for good.

“We really didn’t know what we would do. We don’t have any family who live here,” said Pahlen. “What I have found over my experience with the daycare is that once they close, they’re very hard to get back open.”

Lindsey Buegler and her family were in the same boat.

“We would have to move. We would have to relocate entirely,” said Buegler.

The very first day she began serving on the Little Sprouts board there was talk of closing due to regulations and labor shortages. Afraid of losing families to other towns, Buegler and others came up with an idea to not only keep their childcare center – but to build a brand-new one that’s twice as big.

“We had to go to the drawing board and figure out, OK, how can we financially make this work. What does it take to financially keep a daycare open?” said Buegler.

What they came up with was a city sales tax increase. A half-percent increase for the next 20 years, to keep childcare in town.

“Usually, local sales tax dollars are [for] community centers, ice rinks, pedestrian pass, fire halls,” said city administrator Shannon Mortenson.

Mortenson made many six-hour trips from Warren to St. Paul to try and convince lawmakers that this is what her community needed. In the end, they gave her the green light to let the town’s voters decide. So last November, that’s what they did. The tax increase passed – by just 15 votes.

“Oh my gosh, it passed by 15 votes. Like we won,” said Mortenson.

“We’ve been fighting for seven years, we’re still open,” said Buegler.

The city will break ground on the new $2.6 million daycare center this spring, and they hope to have it open by the end of the year. It will be licensed for 110 kids, which is more than twice as many as the current center.

As communities across the country are struggling to find daycare, what’s happening in Warren could be a blueprint for other cities. It’s believed to be the first city in the country to pass something like this.

Knowing it almost didn’t happen makes supporters want to work even harder to see it through. They viewed this as a life or death vote for the city.

“That’s also your workforce. We’re challenged with workforce bodies anyway, and to have them leave would be devastating economically,” said Mortenson.

That’s means Pahlen and Peyton can stick around for a while. A good thing, too, because the next closest daycare is more than 20 miles away.

“We don’t want to be worrying about our children or waking up every morning, ‘Will we have daycare? Will we not have daycare?’ And so it’s just really so important for young families, especially families who don’t have family in the area,” said Pahlen.

In addition to the sales tax, the city will also use USDA grants and loans to make funding work.

It’s estimated that about $122 billion of revenue was lost in the United States last year due to parents having to stay home with kids due to a lack of childcare accessibility.