Suelaine Poling, executive director of Keene Day Care Center since 2005, in the Frog Room for 2-year-old children on Thursday. The center is a member of the State Early Learning Alliance, a group that works to connect independent child care centers throughout New Hampshire to pool their resources, allowing them to save money on essential services.

Suelaine Poling has held a lot of different roles at the Keene Day Care Center since starting there in 1977.

She’s been a teacher, program coordinator, program director and even the cook. As executive director, a job she’s had since 2005, sometimes she still steps into all of these positions, and more.

“There’s always something,” Poling, a Keene resident, said in a recent interview. “... It could be stepping into a classroom to help out.

“... It might be plunging a toilet. It’s a variety of things. It’s a variety of fun things,” she added, with a laugh.

And in an industry that has been plagued for years by a host of challenges — staff shortages often driven by chronically low wages, and a scarcity of spots in child care centers that cost families more than they can afford — Poling has looked beyond the Monadnock Region for ways to help address them.

Specifically, the Keene Day Care Center is a member of the State Early Learning Alliance. The group works to minimize these challenges by connecting independent child care centers throughout New Hampshire to pool their resources, allowing them to save money on essential services and free up time to focus on providing high-quality care.

In neighboring Vermont, a nonprofit called Let’s Grow Kids is leading a campaign to increase that state’s investment in early childhood education with the goal of providing universal access by 2025.

Despite their different approaches to the fundamental problems with the child care system, which predate the current public health crisis, both groups are working to build a more sustainable system in the post-pandemic era.

SELA aims to save more together

SELA’s director, Cellissa Hoyt, said leaders of child care centers across New Hampshire regularly find themselves in the same overworked position as Poling.

“Very often, in small-to-medium-sized programs, the director and administrator or owner has to wear so many different hats,” Hoyt said. “They have to be an expert at the business operations side, and then they have to be an expert at the educational and the curriculum and the child and family-engagement and staff-supervision side.”

SELA, a membership-based group that launched in 2009 as an initiative of the United Way of the Greater Seacoast, harnesses shared purchasing power to negotiate better deals for a wide range of goods and services child care centers need, from building maintenance and insurance to food and classroom supplies. SELA has grown to 30 members, and is now under the umbrella of Early Learning N.H., a statewide nonprofit working on child care issues.

“And so the idea, then, is to take this economy of scale, and any savings based on that, and [reinvest] it back into what we call quality initiatives,” said Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning N.H. “… So you’re taking any savings you have by sharing really strong expertise across programs, and you might be able to pay your teachers better, you may be able to actually charge your parents less, you may be able to afford more mentoring.”

And as the child care industry begins to emerge from the pandemic, organizations like SELA are continuing the work they began before, with the ultimate goal of providing high-quality, accessible and affordable care for all who need it.

Keene Day Care Center — the only Monadnock Region SELA member — joined around 2012, Poling said, largely motivated by the cost-saving potential. The SELA membership costs $2,400 a year, she said, but as a result, the center saves a net average of $8,000 to $13,000 annually. The center, which serves about 90 kids from six weeks to 5 years old, has an annual budget of just over $1 million, Poling said.

Specifically, Poling said Keene Day Care Center has seen discounts of 17 percent, or about $9,000 a year, on food; 20 percent, or about $6,000 annually, on classroom supplies and equipment; and roughly 45 percent, or about $1,500, on propane. These savings, she added, are all reinvested into the center.

“The two biggest things that we work toward are keeping the cost to parents lower and trying to pay staff as high a wage as we can afford,” Poling said. “So, it gets passed along in that way. Trying to keep our program affordable to parents is a big challenge.”

These twin challenges — skyrocketing child care costs, coupled with consistent staff shortages and low pay — have led to a fragile child care system nationwide. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, with many child care centers closing temporarily or permanently when stay-at-home orders took effect across the country and nearly all schools transitioned to some level of remote learning.

“So there’s actually a saying,” Cowell said. “… ‘Parents can’t afford to pay. Teachers can’t afford to stay. There’s got to be a better way.’ ”

SELA hopes to offer part of a better way forward, Hoyt said, through its efforts to save child care providers time and money. The group is working on collecting hard data on its work, Hoyt said, but based on anecdotal data, she said SELA members have collectively saved around $2 million since the group’s inception 12 years ago.

Today, the 30 members have a combined purchasing power of more than $30 million. If SELA reaches its goal of 200 members, that figure could grow to between $350 and $450 million, with the potential for savings of around $15 million a year, according to documents Hoyt provided.

Reaching this goal would require significantly more uptake from child care centers, investment in the concept and staffing, said Hoyt, SELA’s lone employee (though several staff members from Early Learning N.H. also assist). Eventually, Hoyt said, SELA hopes to employ about five people statewide to provide coaching and mentoring to child care centers, and help them get the most out of SELA membership.

Ultimately, she added, the organization wants to move away from the membership model entirely, and grow to a point where it can provide a shared-services network to every child care center in New Hampshire. Not only would this lower the cost for entry into SELA, Hoyt said, it would also help the organization overcome one of its top recruitment challenges.

“What we really have learned over the years is, for the most part, programs are so stretched with their workload — this is pre-COVID, I’ll say — directors’ and administrators’ workloads are so intense, ... and it leaves them very challenged to put time and energy into something new ... that ultimately will save them time and money,” she said. “But they are challenged by having the time to invest up front.”

Currently, SELA members save by pooling their resources for services such as property maintenance. The organization partners with Exeter-based Great North Property Management, which has offices throughout the state.

“So when you need a plumber, or your roof is leaking, you call your contact at Great North, and they call the six plumbers on their vendor list until one them says, ‘I can go right now. I can drop what I’m doing and go right now,’ ” Hoyt said. “So, that kind of a relationship has proven invaluable to programs that have to manage facilities.”

At the beginning of this year, SELA launched its newest initiative with the goal of consolidating back-office services like accounting and payroll into “hubs” that cover multiple child care centers. This hub model, which SELA is currently piloting in the Seacoast region, would allow independent child care centers to operate more like a public school administrative unit, said Cowell, who lives in Newbury.

“An SAU has all these different schools. They don’t each have a business manager, it’s the SAU that does that for the schools,” she said. “The principals do a great job running their school, but they don’t have to do every single part of the business operations.”

The project is still in its early stages, but Cowell said she believes it “holds a lot of promise.” Poling, the Keene Day Care Center director, said she is familiar with the concept of the hub model, and although her center is not part of the pilot program, she would consider joining an administrative services collective as the program continues to grow.

“Any way that we can add efficiencies and just do what we do better, just makes so much sense,” she said.

Let’s Grow Kids campaign

As SELA continues to build on collaborative efforts to address child care challenges that pre-date the pandemic, Let’s Grow Kids, the Vermont group, is working to keep gaining momentum on its campaign to achieve a sustainable, affordable statewide child care system within the next 4½ years.

The organization grew out of a collaborative effort to bring universal, publicly funded preschool for children aged 3 to 5 to Vermont, CEO Aly Richards said. A law establishing statewide public pre-K passed in 2014, and the system was fully implemented two years later. Let’s Grow Kids officially launched in 2015, with what Richards called “a very ambitious, but doable plan” to set up a similar child care system for kids under 3 within 10 years.

“You need public investment and policy change to fix this,” Richards, a Montpelier resident, said in a recent interview. “There are no magic bullets. The financing model is such that parents are paying too much, and early educators can’t afford to get paid less. ... So, something’s got to give here, and there is no magic-bullet solution other than increasing public funding and changing public policy to get this done in a sustainable, equitable way. So, that is where we find ourselves today.”

Experts who spoke to The Sentinel for this “Pandemic Parenting” series said the influx of government investment in early childhood education during the pandemic is a good start, but that the system needs more consistent public funding to address long-running gaps in access and affordability. The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday announced that it will use COVID-19 relief funds to launch several new initiatives in the next two months, including stabilization grants to child care centers, workforce recruitment and retention programs, and increases for the N.H. Child Care Scholarship Program, which provides financial assistance for income-eligible families.

Let’s Grow Kids scored a legislative victory earlier this month, when Vermont’s governor, Republican Phil Scott, signed into law H.171, which includes a $12.7 million investment in child care infrastructure in the state. The law passed with near-unanimous support, and also provides a path forward for Let’s Grow Kids’ two primary goals: that Green Mountain State families don’t spend more than 10 percent of household income on child care, and that child care workers in the state will be fairly compensated and well supported.

“Those are the twin goals that are in this bill,” Richards said. “They’re the things that cost the money, and they’re the things that really bottleneck quality, access and affordability. So [the bill] sets these two goals, it puts [in] these initial investments, and us on a path to it.”

The next steps for Let’s Grow Kids’ work include completing two studies that the new law calls for to help guide further policy proposals in the next few years, Richards said. The first study will look at what sort of governance structure Vermont should adopt for its child care system, and a second study will examine the financial feasibility of universal access to affordable child care.

According to the group’s 2021 legislative agenda, Let’s Grow Kids recommends the state study the use of a payroll tax, or other stable, long-term funding sources to finance Vermont’s child care system. The new law sets 2023 as the deadline for both the financial and governance studies, Richards said, so state leaders can incorporate their findings into legislation to reach Let’s Grow Kids’ goals.

“And then we have to have the courage as citizens of Vermont and lawmakers representing us to say we’re going to make this transformative investment,” Richards said.

This work builds on a five-year plan passed in 2019 to redesign Vermont’s Child Care Financial Assistance Program, run through the state’s Department for Children and Families. The program is now open to more people based on their annual income, and the family payment structure is now tied to a percentage of income, instead of payments for individual children. Let’s Grow Kids’ legislative agenda calls for the state to continue investment in the program, and keep expanding income eligibility.

Let’s Grow Kids, which is driven by philanthropy, undertakes all of this work by acting, in many ways, like a political campaign, Richards said.

“We became a campaign, a policy campaign, when we had to be,” Richards said, adding that the organization has garnered support through methods such as door-to-door campaigning, grassroots engagement and public messaging campaigns.

Ultimately, she said, Let’s Grow Kids is laser-focused on Vermont, but hopes that the group’s work there can be a catalyst for other states and communities to pursue similar initiatives to address the fundamental deficiencies in the child care system.

“We think that we can show that through data and through getting this done in Vermont,” she said, “and that will have a major aspirational effect on other states and this country, by just getting one state to go and show that it’s possible and it’s great.”

The Sentinel’s “Pandemic Parenting” project is supported by a competitive grant from the nonpartisan Solutions Journalism Network. The Sentinel retains editorial control.

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.