Support Leelanau’s young families: vote ‘Yes’ on early childhood millage

Opinion by Jacob Wheeler

Sun editor

Leelanau County voters have an opportunity when we vote on Tuesday, Nov. 5, to support children between the ages of 0-5 and their hard-working families—and to make a statement that this County welcomes young families to live and thrive here, to send their children to our schools, and eventually to populate our depleted workforce.

Vote “yes” on the Early Childhood Development Services Millage. Whether we view it as “paying it forward”, as “supporting family values” or as “talent attraction”, this is simply the right thing to do.

“Voters have the opportunity to make a significant difference for families raising young children and to entice young families to move to the County. Because healthy resilient families are the backbone of a thriving community,” wrote early childhood specialist Maggie Sprattmoran in an op-ed in our October edition of the Sun.

Leelanau has a proud history of supporting our senior citizens through organizations such as ShareCare. Now we should stand up for our youngest citizens as well. (The population 5 and under totals nearly 1,000.)

County voters are asked to support a 0.253 millage request to fund early childhood development services from 2020 until 2024—a program the County funded for the past 20 years, but which has run out of money. The millage would raise $728,000 per year, with 94 percent of that amount allocated for three community health workers, a part-time coordinator, and two social workers who will implement home visits, playgroups, parenting groups, and health resource connections for families—many of whom feel isolated in our rural communities. The millage also funds mental health services and a mobile dental program.

According to the Leelanau County Equalization Department, 90 percent of Leelanau property owners would pay less than $4.50 per month for the proposal. That’s less than the cost of a beer or a meal at one of our fine Leelanau County establishments.

The millage has bipartisan support from four of seven Leelanau County Commissioners, including the commission’s crucial swing vote, Republican Tony Ansorge, as well as support from the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, which would coordinate the service. There is also support from the superintendents of all four county public schools, Suttons Bay, Glen Lake, Leland and Northport, and support from important local business owners including Cherry Republic’s Bob Sutherland.

Ages 0 to 5 are crucial early years for a child, when 90 percent of their brains develop, before they start kindergarten. Paradoxically, these are the years when parents have the fewest resources available to them.

“Parenting is one of the most challenging and impactful roles a person can experience,” wrote Sprattmoran. “Despite our intentions and dreams for our families, life happens. Conditions, often beyond our control, throw curveballs that demand our attention and often diminish our energy, dreams and intentions in the face of the current reality.”

“At every other period of child rearing, we, and our children, are supported by publicly available supports—such as the K-12 school system. And yet, in the early childhood years, the single most important period for healthy development and lifelong resilience, we have no ready access to thought partners, people who understand child development and parenting or trustworthy information.”

The service, if approved by voters, would include weekly playgroups at locations through Leelanau County, improved access to health resources, home visits, and parent programs. All services would be voluntary and free for any Leelanau family with young children.

There’s a preventative health argument to this service as well. Decades of research show that when families are supported in early childhood, the kids develop better problem-solving skills, improved health outcomes, higher high school graduation rates, and higher lifelong earnings. Those supported between ages 0 and 5 have lower substance abuse rates, half as many criminal arrests, less depression, lower teen pregnancy rates, and lower retention and special education needs.

That adds up to a “rate of return” of $5.70 per dollar spent. That’s sound economics.

False assumptions about Leelanau-wide equity

Opposition to the Early Childhood Millage, including a staff editorial last week in the Leelanau Enterprise (the County’s paper of record) that encouraged a “no” vote, make several false assumptions. One is that because Leelanau County is among the 10 riches counties in Michigan, and number one in per capita income, the wealth is shared by young, working families. That’s not the case. True, our county is full of wealthy retirees and grandiose second homes; it’s also home to working families who live from one paycheck to the next.

Behold this telling statistic from a story we published in late August about school nutrition and school lunch debt at Suttons Bay Elementary School: 

“Students in low-income areas often face food insecurity. They don’t know where their next meal may come from, let alone if it will be a healthy option. Fifty-seven percent of students enrolled in Suttons Bay Elementary School last year were considered economically disadvantaged and qualified for free and reduced-price meals. In Michigan a family of four that makes less than $32,630 per year qualifies for the program.”

The same story mentioned Leelanau Christian Neighbors’ Blessings in a Backpack program, which provides food for students to bridge the gap between Friday’s lunch and Monday’s breakfast by sending students home with a bag of food. According to Leelanau Christian Neighbors executive director Mary Stanton, approximately 50 Suttons Bay elementary and middle school students benefited from this program each week during the 2018-2019 school year. Other elementary and middle schools in Leelanau County also received help from Blessings in a Backpack. Last year Glen Lake tallied about 50 students, and Northport and Leland counted approximately 30, each, Stanton estimated.

Those statistics of food insecurity clearly show that not everyone in Leelanau County is wealthy.

Lack of wealth suggests a need for early childhood development services.

Another false assumption is that one must be “poor” (or qualify for free or reduced-price lunch) to benefit from early childhood services.

Here are the perspectives of a couple of Leelanau County families who have benefited from these services.

Rural, isolated, self-employed

Nikki and Michael McHugh were new to this area when they moved to Leelanau County 13 years ago to start Cedar Sol Hydro and Cedar Sol Tacos. They didn’t have a network of parents or a support system, said Nikki. The playgroups helped her establish that important network.

Home visits came in handy when their second child, Morris, was born. 

“Ms. Kathy was our home coordinator, and visited once or twice a month from the time he was born until he entered kindergarten,” said Nikki. “I also used Ms. Kathy as a way of gauging where my kid was developmentally. It was beneficial for Morris in that it gave me ways throughout the month to keep him engaged, and different ways of interacting with him.”

“To have that outside resource, someone following along with your child, someone else who helps you make decisions (about when to start kindergarten) … As a parent I felt really supported.”

Nikki added that early childhood services are even more important in a rural community where families can feel isolated.

“We work from home, and we’ve had our children with us a lot when they were young,” she said. “This service can be beneficial for those working from home, or don’t have a vehicle, or homeschool. When they offered helped me be confident as a parent. These counselors are trained educators. I was always blown away by how much they knew.”

Greta Campo, a business owner and realtor in Leland, agrees that the isolation of Leelanau County—whether one lives in a village or deep in the woods—presents a challenge for parents and young families. She used early childhood services for her daughter Charlie.

“In our rural community, social isolation as a parent can make things hard,” said Campo. “There needs to be support that provides validation and normalization for how difficult parenting can be. Especially in the first couple weeks, it helps not to have to pack up my newborn and drive 45 minutes (to Traverse City).”

“That a nurse would come to my home and weigh our baby and give advice on breastfeeding, soothing and sleeping was really great. It had a big impact on my success and having a pleasant parenting experience.”

Campo added that the playgroups also supported Charlie’s social development and well-being, and eased her transition to school.

“Some people have great support systems and some don’t,” said Campo. “This millage will be able to reach out to people who don’t have great support systems and give them more tools than they would otherwise have.”

So please vote “Yes” on the Early Childhood millage on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

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