PARKSTON — After nearly 25 years, the Avera St. Benedict Day Care is closing on Sept. 30.

But Parkston is not quite ready for it to go.

Avera announced on July 30 it would be closing the lone out-of-home day care center in Parkston, but while parents of many of its 54 kids have found a new option, there are still around 15 who have yet to find an adequate replacement. As a result, the Parkston Area Development Corporation has been lobbying to create a community-based day care in its place.

But as the deadline for closure approaches, there have been a few snags along the way, including a fiscal agent for the plan.

The city council opted not to pursue backing and running the day care, while there have been discussions with the Parkston School District. But as of the school board meeting on Monday, no decisions have been made, making it unlikely a community day care will be running by Oct. 1.

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“Initially (the PADC) is playing a facilitation role, but it really depends on how the community groups come together,” PADC board member David Lambert said. “Whether it’s the city, the development corporation, the hospital or the school, we all have a role to play. We just need to flesh out who’s willing to do what. Whether that means financial contribution or other aspects. There are also other multiple pieces we’re trying to work through, including trying to find staff.”

The day care began to lean toward closure at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the program director resigned. A part-time employee took over in the interim, but she also put in her resignation notice over the summer.

While Avera offers employees the same benefits and salary wages as any hospital employee, finding a new director became increasingly more challenging, as did finding associate staff members. All of it culminated in the decision to close for good.

The day care is required to hire a director with the highest level of certification, which is 120 hours of formal nutrition training, 480 hours of experience working with young children within the last three years and 120 hours of formal early childhood education completed in eight subject areas.

“We did not go out and advertise again because we had difficulty filling that role before,” said Rita Blasius, CEO of Avera St. Benedict. “Lots of turnover. We weren’t able to hire enough people to operate at capacity, quite frankly. … I felt from a comparative place, from what I have access to, many day cares aren’t able to provide benefits to their employees, which we did.”

Choosing an option

When the PADC heard of the closure, action was taken swiftly in an attempt to find a replacement, citing the need for the day care in the community. The search has been spearheaded by Lambert, while Blasius also serves on the board.

Lambert felt the two best options for sustaining a community-based day care were through a city-funded program or one run by the school district. The city-funded program was modeled after a day care in Parker, while White Lake offers a day care at the school, but it is run by a separate board of directors within the community, which has the power to make all of the personnel decisions and provide benefits.

“Having someone (run a day care) out of their home is becoming less and less appealing,” Lambert said. “From perspective, if you can pull the resources together in a community and put something together like a community-based day care, then we’re hopefully pulling in the same direction for something that is desperately needed by young people and their children.”

The Parkston City Council did not have formal discussions on the matter, but quickly opted not to pursue running the day care, according to Mayor Dave Hoffman.

With one person in the city finance office and Hoffman working part-time, they did not see themselves as a viable entity to run the day care. They have expressed support for the community day care, and Hoffman said the city would be willing to help contribute financially, as long as another entity is in charge.

“We know the day care is important,” Hoffman said. “If we don’t have a day care, young families aren’t going to move to town. We know that. … We don’t want to take the lead on trying to keep it going. If there was a nonprofit or the school or somebody else that wants to help run it, we would help keep it going until it can stand on its own feet.”

The PADC has also presented proposals to the Parkston School Board of Directors on two occasions with the goal of becoming the fiscal agent, which is an entity that acts on behalf of another organization by performing financial duties.

While the school has yet to take action, continued discussions are encouraging to the PADC and the hope is to find a financial agreement, although Lambert did not disclose monetary estimates to the Mitchell Republic.

“We have a pretty good handle on what it would cost financially, approximately how many students and what we would need to charge,” Lambert said. “Obviously the shortfall is really where we’re at. That becomes one of those critical factors in finding community partners — whether it be through a fundraising event the community does or through a charitable contribution — to allow us to move forward.”

Benefit funding emerges as key obstacle

Lambert sees financial support coming from a variety of sources, not just a sole fiscal agent to be able to provide insurance to employees.

Offering insurance to employees is perhaps the most intricate aspect of the bid to create a community-based day care. A day care director or supervisor is typically required to possess a Bachelor’s or Associate's degree. South Dakota also requires directors to obtain certification credentials through the Early Childhood Enrichment system or South Dakota Out-of-School Time credential.

“A separate, nonprofit community day care without the ability to provide that health care coverage is really going to defeat our purposes here,” Lambert said. “We really want someone who has the skill set, temperament and the ability to meet parents’ needs. But those folks who also have an educational background are requiring more and more that they receive some sort of health care coverage.”

The final date of operation for Avera St. Benedict’s day care is two weeks away and it is finalized firmly. With no action taken by the school board on Monday, the likelihood of finding another option by Oct. 1 is dim.

Not only are financial numbers still in question, a new director would have to be hired, as well as a staff. Lambert says the PADC has received interest from people willing to work at the new day care, but interviews to determine qualifications have not occurred.

There has also been discussion on hiring a director from outside the Parkston community if necessary, but it is not considered ideal by parents and board members for a community-based organization.

“It’s really still too early to tell,” Lambert said. “I know that’s silly because we’re 15 days away and I don’t want to push the envelope that hard. But we’ve got some parents saying we still don’t have a place for our kids and I don’t have a good answer for them.”

Parkston Superintendent Shayne McIntosh did not return phone calls from the Mitchell Republic for this story.