Christmas came early for parents who use the RALLY child care program as school officials announced a substantial price reduction that started this month.
Short for Relationships and Leadership, Learning for Youth, RALLY provides before- and after-school care to families with school-age children and has long been a fixture of child care in Juneau.
For a combination of reasons — including labor costs, sagging enrollment after the pandemic and debt from prior years — monthly rates soared to as high as $999 a month per child earlier this year.
A recent effort to consolidate sites and find other savings has allowed district officials to reduce the cost for after-school care to $575 per child, according to Cassee Olin, director of administrative services for the Juneau School District.
Olin said the district plans to maintain that rate through the end of the school year and then assess the summer fee schedule.
In an email, Superintendent Bridget Weiss said she hopes the price change will attract more families to the program — a critical step in retiring the debt and finding a more sustainable operating model.
While still more expensive than pre-pandemic pricing, parents expressed relief at the news.
“The price is much more manageable now and we expect to continue full time throughout the school year,” said parent Dana Hanselman, who has two children in the program. “Even if we don’t use it every day for both kids, the security of having it available each day is really important to us as working parents.”
Mara Sheakley-Early said that it’s her first year with the program and that she was surprised to learn that the cost of after-school care for her kindergarten student would exceed the cost of child care for her younger child who attends full-day daycare.
“I’m really happy to see the price drop,” Sheakley-Early said.
Hanselman predicted the district’s efforts to attract new families will work, especially in the new year.
“We knew a number of families that were in full-time RALLY with us prior to COVID that balked at the high price and determined that they would figure something else out, which was unfortunate because they and their children enjoyed RALLY,” he said. “I think as the news spreads of the more reasonable price, some will return, but I think it will take some patience, and I would not expect many returning families until at least after winter break.”
Olin said that calls are coming in for new enrollments, but she still hears from parents who are worried about the COVID-19 implications of mixing students from different grades together. As more young children get vaccinated, she expects those fears to abate.
Consolidating sites to save money
Historically, the school district has offered RALLY after school at each elementary school site and at select locations for morning care. Beginning in October, three sites consolidated into one location in the afternoon with students at Mendenhall River Community School and Riverbend Elementary School taking a bus to Sít’ Eetí Shaanàx-Glacier Valley Elementary School for the RALLY program.
Weiss said the changes are a start in helping RALLY find more solid financial footing.
“The initial changes that we have instituted will likely not diminish the debt completely. We won’t know if there was any debt associated with RALLY until the end of the school year,” Weiss said. “If there is then we will build a plan to make up that difference.”
Elizabeth Siddon, president of Juneau’s Board of Education, told the Empire that the board recognizes that RALLY plays a vital role in supporting students and families.
“RALLY provides a childcare option that covers the full workday. We have been aware of the barriers the tuition has caused families this year. We support the district’s strategy to reduce tuition and are hopeful that will result in increased access for families to the program,” she said in an email.
Hanselman said he appreciated that the district understood concerns from parents.
“We were very pleased to see that the Juneau School Board recognized that RALLY is a critical need in Juneau and that current finances should not suddenly jeopardize an essential child care service in Juneau, particularly when it is well known that there is a serious shortage in Juneau,” Hanselman said.
Hanselman said that he and many other local parents who relied on full-time after-school care were shocked by the initial price for this school year. He said the price change prompted him to re-enroll his children full-time after using the service part-time for several months.
“RALLY is an excellent program with very dedicated staff that our children adore,” Hanselman said.
Sheakley-Early agreed with Hanselman’s assessment of the program.
“I feel very connected and communicated with there. You know your child is being taken care of and it feels good,” she said, adding that her son is sometimes disappointed when she picks him up early.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-38-4891.