Unclear provincial grant deadlines frustrate Alberta daycare operators
Province says operators won't have to sign new agreements until end of April, but agreements expire next week
Alberta daycare operators are upset that the provincial government has not yet given them key details on funding for the next fiscal year even though their current agreement expires in a week.
Operators need to sign a new agreement for the 2023-24 fiscal year to continue receiving affordability payments but they haven't received the paperwork. Many operators believe they need to sign the agreements by March 31 to continue receiving the funding the government is providing to prevent fees from rising.
But the government says operators will keep getting those grants into April as long as they signed to get the grants for the first three months of 2023. They won't have to sign the new agreements until the end of next month.
Krystal Churcher, chair of the Association of Alberta Child Care Entrepreneurs, is frustrated the ministry hasn't shared the information widely.
The Wood Buffalo daycare operator chairs an organization that represents for-profit daycare in Alberta, yet she only learned about the change on Wednesday.
Churcher said the lack of clarity is leaving operators worried about a shortfall if they don't get their government grants.
"That is so stressful. It's completely unfair," Churcher said in an interview with CBC News. "As an operator [I] go to bed at night thinking, my God, how many days are left under my agreement and what happens April 1st?"
Chinenye Anokwuru, press secretary for Children's Services Minister Mickey Amery, confirmed the deadline for signing the affordability grant agreements will be near the end of April. There are March 31 deadlines for two other aspects of the funding agreement.
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The funding is part of the Canada-Alberta Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Agreement, which aims to create thousands of new daycare spaces and bring down parent fees to $10 a day by 2026. Operators are also getting a one-time payment of $280 per licensed space this year.
The agreements also apply to non-profit and public daycares.
The Calgary YMCA operates six daycare facilities including the 348-space Quarry Park Child Development Centre,
Chief operating officer Tanis Cochrane said the lack of information is making it very hard to plan for the upcoming year. She said parents are asking questions about fees that her staff are having difficulty answering.
"It's hard for us to pass along any kind of certainty for families because we tell them everything we know, but when we don't know, then they also are wondering," she said.
"We plan as a business and that's important but families plan too."
Churcher said she's confused why the ministry isn't spreading the word that the deadline for the affordability grant agreements is actually in April.
"We're sitting here on March 23rd and we've had no announcements," she said. "There's been a couple of emails floated around to different people who've asked certain questions to say we may have a month to look at a new agreement, but we don't know what that means.
"It's just really disappointing and frustrating."
Adding to the frustration is the cost control framework, which was released at the end of January as part of the Canada-Alberta agreement.
Alberta insisted on Ottawa allowing the for-profit sector to create more spaces under the child care agreement so the framework was created.
The document lays out how a daycare can make a fair profit or generate a surplus while using tax dollars, depending whether they operate as a business or a non-profit.
The province plans to designate aspects of child care as "core", which will be covered under the basic $10-a-day fee, and "enhanced' where parents may have to pay extra.
Examples of enhanced services include "transportation, field trips, special programming or other additional costs that support innovation and creativity within the child care program."
NDP children services critic Rakhi Pancholi has asked Amery in budget estimates and question period whether meals and snacks for children would be considered enhanced services.
Pancholi said Amery is trying to keep keep the government's plans under wraps until after the election.
"Where is the conversation with parents?" Pancholi asked in an interview with CBC News.
"It's not happening because the minister of children's services and the UCP government doesn't want to tell parents ahead of an election when they're facing an affordability crisis.
"So they're very deliberately trying to, in my view, suppress this conversation."
Amery has denied this is the case. He said the ministry needs to hear from operators from every part of the province, which face local cost pressures and different market conditions.
Consultations with stakeholders started in March and are expected to wrap up by the end of May, he said.
"We need to hear from them directly to find out what the cost control framework details include to help implement a model that works for every single operator in this province," Amery said.
Both Churcher and Cochrane are concerned over how the framework has the potential to create two classes of children in the same daycare: those whose parents will pay for enhanced services like art supplies, for example, and those whose families can only afford basic child care.
Cochrane isn't sure how staff would be able to manage this type of two-tier service. She said the YMCA will do what it can to ensure its daycares maintain high quality for all children.
Churcher said separating children into haves and have-nots will hurt their emotional and mental well-being.
She said government needs to ensure every child gets the same type of inclusive, accessible and affordable daycare.
"It's like you're turning us into discount airlines," Churcher said. "It just feels horrible."