City of Crookston eyes elementary school as future solution to child care shortage
According to a 2022 study of child care need in northwest Minnesota by First Children’s Finance, Crookston is short 82 child care spots.
CROOKSTON — The city of Crookston is eying Washington Elementary School as a possible location for a future child care center.
The availability of child care is a major challenge for employers in Crookston, said Karie Kirschbaum, community development director at the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority. According to a 2022 study of child care need in northwest Minnesota by First Children’s Finance, Crookston is short 82 child care spots.
“That just means (parents) don’t have a job or they have to use a grandparent or they have to take a different type of job — all those types of things that families are struggling with,” she said.
If school district plans come to fruition, Washington Elementary, which is home to the district’s pre-K and Kindergarten classes, will be empty by the end of 2024 or early 2025. In July 2022, the Crookston School Board approved a plan to add pre-K classrooms to Highland Elementary School and renovate Crookston High School to accommodate sixth-grade students. The plan would create a sixth-through-eighth-grade middle school wing in Crookston High School and make room for younger students at Highland Elementary.
“When we heard that Washington was slated to be closed in 2025, we thought, ‘well, let’s go over and see if that is something that would work,’” said Kirschbaum.
Kirschbaum and Corky Reynolds, Crookston city administrator, proposed the idea of Washington Elementary becoming a child care center to the Crookston Public Schools Long Range and Finance Committee on Friday, Feb. 12.
One provider is already planning to open a child care center in two classrooms she is leasing at Washington Elementary. A child care center operated by Stephanie Okroi is slated to open before the end of February and provide 41 new child care spots in Crookston. Okroi also operates a child care center in Grand Forks.
CHEDA also helped Okroi start her Crookston location. It had previously set aside $50,000 for a child care development project that did not work out, said Kirschbaum, but the CHEDA board approved some of that money for Okroi to use for staff training and licensing.
Once the school district moves out, the building could allow for two different child care configurations, said Reynolds. The first would be a more traditional model with a single provider operating the whole building as a child care center, likely the provider that is opening in two classrooms later this month. The second model is “podding,” where individual providers would each have a classroom or two to run their operation out of.
“That would be for people who either do not want to provide child care in their home, don’t have the space to provide it or, let’s say, an individual who has an apartment and wants to provide childcare but the apartment structure would not allow that,” said Reynolds.
The school board will not be able to make concrete plans for Washington Elementary until it knows the renovation at Crookston High School and addition at Highland Elementary go through, said Frank Fee, school board chair. In the meantime, conversations with parties interested in the school, like the city, are the first step.
“If we can’t work out something with the city, I guess we’ll go from there,” he said.
Kirschbaum says the next step is to get an updated child care study done in Crookston so the city has a clearer picture of the needs of the community. The city and the school district will also have to work out an agreement for how the city will use the building, which could include a sale or transfer of the building to the city or a joint powers agreement, said Reynolds.
“Now the process will involve formulating some specific proposals or specific implementation mechanisms for us to see if this is doable,” said Reynolds. “We sure hope so, we all have that goal, for sure — we just need to see how that can be best accomplished for the child care needs of our community.”