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City of Waupun takes rare step to invest public funds in child care

Wee Care is the area's sole child care provider

Six students are seen from above as they lay on the floor as they draw pictures with markers.
Preschool students draw pictures Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, at Wee Care Child Center in Waupun, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The city of Waupun is taking the unusual step of investing directly in a community day care center to help alleviate long waiting lists and concerns about parents being unable to work because their children don’t have a place to go during the day.

For nearly 35 years, the Wee Care Child Center has served the families of Waupun and the surrounding cites in Dodge and Fond du Lac counties. With at least 70 children consistently on the waiting list, city officials are giving public money to Wee Care, the area’s sole child care provider.

After watching Gov. Tony Evers and legislative Republicans spend months battling over the Child Care Counts stabilization program, Waupun’s Republican Mayor Rohn Bishop knows what his city is doing probably doesn’t sit well with his party.

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But Bishop said child care is about economic development.

“We have a labor shortage in the Waupun area, and obviously if there is nowhere for your kid to go, then you can’t go to work,” Bishop said. “I think child care might be the next job benefit companies offer.”

Waupun, which has a population of about 11,500, has allocated $62,500 in federal American Recovery Plan Act funds to Wee Care to help the center expand, said city administrator Kathy Schlieve.

Once complete, Wee Care will be able to accept 50 to 60 more children.

The city council has set aside a total of $250,000 in ARPA funds to expand child care. That money must be spent by February 2024, Schlieve said.

Bishop has been trying to get Waupun’s largest companies to come together to open a joint day care center at the city’s business park. He said the businesses are all interested, but no one wants to take the lead.

Before Wee Care began its expansion, the city approached owners Allison Neumann and Miranda Bykowski about opening a second location. They declined.

“If someone wants to start something, we’ll help them in any way we can,” Neumann said. “We don’t see it as competition at all. We could have another building and fill it with all the kids on our waiting list, but we have no staff to fill it.”

Bishop said there is a person interested in opening a center and the city is willing to be a partner to help her get it off the ground, including giving her a vacant city-owned building.

“It’s a win-win — it gets rid of an empty building in Waupun and brings in another child care, which we desperately need,” Bishop said.

Wee Care is a family business for Waupun families

Wee Care has always been part of Neumann and Bykowski’s lives. Their mothers, Carol Glass and Karen Pollock, respectively, started the center 34 years ago. The younger women, who are cousins, started working at the center as soon as they were old enough.

Neumann and Bykowski purchased the center from their moms about a decade ago. Their aunt, Carla Peterson, still works at Wee Care, handling accounting.

Wee Care continues to grow. There was a second provider in Waupun — but it closed during the pandemic. Wee Care absorbed the families.

Right now, there are about 120 children at Wee Care, ages six weeks to 11 years old. The center employs about 25 people.

Neumann and Bykowski will need to hire at least five more people once the expansion is complete. They’re already worried about staffing.

Child Care Counts has kept Wee Care afloat

Child Care Counts, the federal program that injected money into the industry, helped the center keep operating, giving Wee Care about $20,000 a month.

Neumann and Bykowski used the extra money to give their staff pay raises. Their highest paid employees went from $13 and hour to $17 an hour, or about $27,000 a year to $35,300 a year.

Wee-Care still is unable to afford to pay health insurance benefits.

But this summer, Child Care Counts benefits were cut in half. Wee Care now gets $10,000 a month. Not wanting to cut employee pay, the center had to raise prices for parents.

Instead of being charged only for the hours their children attend the center, parents now pay a weekly flat rate based on their child’s age.

Evers and Republicans battled over funding Child Care Counts all summer. The federal program is set to expire at the end of January 2024. Evers included funding in his budget proposal, but it was stripped by Republicans, who announced an alternative workforce development plan that would provide tax credits for child care costs, alongside an income tax cut and statewide regulatory changes.

Evers announced earlier this month he’ll direct $170 million in emergency federal funding towards the child care industry. That funding will last until June 2025.

“I get the point that we’re privately run so we shouldn’t get government funds and we should have prepared for it ending,” Neumann said. “But what that Counts money did was prove to everybody how much child care needs extra help.”

Bishop said watching the Legislature and Evers battle over Child Care Counts was like watching a car crash.

He said a temporary federal program shouldn’t be the responsibility of the state legislature, but Wisconsin’s child care industry and parents need help.

“I get the argument, I understand why (the Legislature) doesn’t like taking heat for it,” Bishop said. “But as a mayor, I’m just trying to make Waupun the best place to live. I’m still a Republican, this is just a real issue. Hopefully the governor and the legislature do figure something out.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Wee Care Child Center.