Children play with toys during the March 8, 2019, grand opening of Miss Jordyn's Child Care and Preschool in Caribou on March 9, 2019. Pictured from left are Eamon Powers and Kingston Stone. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — If Maine does not enact significant changes for child care funding and regulatory procedures, Aroostook County could lose more day cares and see its workforce shortage worsen, according to local providers.

Aroostook is one of four Maine counties classified as a “child care desert,” regions where there are more than three children under age 5 for each licensed child care slot.

Providers blame inadequate staff wages, a lack of public funding and highly strict state Department of Health and Human Services regulations as reasons why home-based and public centers are closing rapidly and leaving working parents with few options.

That’s why providers are banding together to urge local and state leaders to fix the “broken system” that regulates child care and allow more centers to thrive.

Since 2014, Caribou, one of Aroostook’s two cities, has lost half of its early child care providers, with most closing during the pandemic. In that city, there are eight home-based providers and four public centers, meaning those located outside of residential areas.

But there have never been many incentives for staff members to remain in the child care field, said Jordyn Rossignol, owner of Miss Jordyn’s Child Care and Preschool.

Rossignol has lost more than 30 teachers since the start of the pandemic, and has only been able to increase their wages because of American Rescue Plan Act funds that will expire in October.

“Those funds are the only reason I’ve been able to not raise tuition,” Rossignol said during a child care town hall Thursday. “We’re not funded the way schools are, so we rely on tuition from parents.”

In Caribou, Rossignol’s center is the largest public child care facility, with capacity for 106 children. Most of her slots are filled, but even tuition from parents cannot make up for inadequate state funding, she said.

While the Maine DHHS operates a Child Care Subsidy Program to assist eligible families with tuition, that program does not reimburse providers at a rate that considers the costs associated with running a facility, Rossignol said.

For instance, Rossignol receives a market-rate reimbursement of $148 for weekly, full-time pre-K care, but the costs to operate those classrooms total $186 a week, including teacher wages and supplies. State law prevents her from charging parents the difference if they are part of the subsidy program.

The market-rate model for calculating those reimbursements does little to reduce her operational expenses, which include a monthly rent of $5,000 and total staff wages from $9,000 to $10,000 per week.

“My revenue is negative $30,000 a year,” Rossignol said. “No one can live on that.”

Rossignol was one of more than a dozen child care providers that organized a special town hall meeting in Caribou Thursday to voice their concerns to community leaders and employers.

Among providers’ largest obstacles to financial stability, noted Theresa Dube, is the excessive nature of DHHS safety regulations and inspections.

For 24 years, Dube has run a family day care out of her Caribou home with capacity for 10 children. After being written up numerous times for violations, she and colleagues say that many of the state’s day care regulations are more tedious than helpful to providers.

One former provider was written up and threatened with closure because her refrigerator was two degrees above the required temperature, Dube said. Though the refrigerator was set to one temperature by the manufacturer, the provider received a 10-day warning to fix the issue or close.

Dube takes part in the state’s Child and Adult Care Food Program but must fill out detailed charts specifying the brands, types and amounts of food served to children.

It’s a process that takes time out of educating, caring for and actually feeding children, she said.

“We have to use a scale to weigh every cracker to make sure each child is eating the exact amount of wheat specified [by DHHS],” Dube said. “If we have a home recipe, then we have to record everything in that recipe. We have to keep the sidebar [of nutritional information] that’s on a Ritz cracker box.”

Be it low pay, little revenue or regulations, the daily challenges experienced by Rossignol, Dube and other providers have left them demanding that state and federal legislators stop cutting child care assistance out of major legislation, like the Inflation Reduction Act.

Though Gov. Janet Mills’ $10 million Child Care Infrastructure Grant Program is giving funds for new and expanding centers, that alone cannot address the systemic issues with wages, reimbursements and regulations, Rossignol said.

She and Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, the only state legislator who attended the town hall, encouraged community members to testify if future child care bills are proposed in the Legislature, and to call their state representatives and senators.

Kim Rohn, a Caribou-based senior constituent services representative for Rep. Jared Golden, said that she would bring back insight from the town hall for Golden to consider.

“I was a single mom, and when my son needed child care he went to ACAP [Aroostook County Action Program],” she said. “I understand the impact child care has on parents.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Rossignol’s payroll expenses were monthly. Those expenses are weekly.