A victory for the children

Kathleen Merritt, executive director of Bright Futures, bottom right, celebrates the success of the Early Childhood Initiative, Ballot Issue 1A, with supporters at Rustico Ristorante on Tuesday night. (Photo by Justin Criado/Telluride Daily Planet) 

 

The voters of San Miguel County essentially gave every local child a hug Tuesday night as the Early Childhood Initiative, Ballot Issue 1A, passed with flying colors. 

The item received over 63 percent of the vote, according to complete but unofficial results as of press time. The initiative was the only San Miguel County item on the 2017 ballot.

The initiative will increase property taxes by .75 of a mill, or an estimated $5.40 for every $100,000 of assessed residential property value in order to help fund county child care services. The tax is estimated to raise approximately $616,890 per year. 

Supporters and proponents gathered at Rustico Ristorante on Tuesday evening to track the results. 

Kathleen Merritt, executive director of Bright Futures — a Telluride-based nonprofit that focuses on and supports early childhood education in the region —  couldn’t contain her excitement as it appeared the ballot initiative would finally gain voter approval. (A similar countywide ballot item failed in 2009.) 

“I’ve been in early childhood for many, many years and over the years, I have always dreamed of a dedicated funding source to early childhood education and it’s happening now,” she said. “It’s definitely a dream realized. I just can’t wait to dig and start doing the important work that needs to get done.”

With the new revenue, Merritt said the “immediate next steps” will be the formation of the Early Childhood Advisory Panel, which is outlined in the initiative. The panel will consist of representatives from the Telluride and Norwood school districts, Bright Futures, Board of County Commissioners, and community. 

“That panel would convene and start addressing the needs outlined in 1A,” she said. 

Currently, there are 211 child care slots available for 383 children in the county under the age of 5, according to a recent survey. Merritt has said there are 50 local children in need of immediate care. 

The new funds will go toward helping existing centers increase their capacity to accept infants and toddlers by adding staff or expanding the size of current locations, as well as funding early childhood education and building up the availability of licensed home child care providers.

Clea Willow, Bright Futures program manager, celebrated alongside Merritt and dozens of backers. 

“Beside the fact that San Miguel County really loves its kids, I’m really excited for all the next steps, and helping all the providers and kiddos in our county,” she said. (Full disclosure: With the “every child a hug” remark, Willow actually came up with the lede to this story.) 

When the first wave of results became available, Merritt said she was “cautiously optimistic,” holding off on an official toast until more votes were tallied. However, throughout the evening, the initiative roughly maintained a 60-40 split. 

As it was evident victory had all but been secured, Merritt reflected on all the years of hard work and dedication to the cause. 

She described the sensation of elation as “absolute relief.”

The concept of a tax to support child care and early childhood education gained momentum throughout the community early this year, resulting in the latest ballot initiative, but the efforts of people like Merritt and Willow have been ongoing for much longer. 

While still celebrating, both admitted, however, this is just the beginning. 

In other child-care news, it was recently announced that the child-care facility in the Shandoka apartment complex is expected to reopen Jan. 1 after a hiatus of nearly a year-and-a-half. 

The facility, previously known as Toddler Town, was closed in June 2016 after the operator was accused of misdemeanor child abuse.

The center has since been renamed Elaine’s Place in honor of the late Elaine Fischer, a well-known local, artist and county commissioner who was recognized for her ardent support of child care.

The facility will be run by Leah Barber, a Michigan native, and her fiancé, Ryan Roman. 

“We’re really excited. We’ve been working closely with Leah to help her smooth out the transition in opening a new center, which is really quite challenging,” Willow said.