Sawyer Donaldson works away at the car wash station at Morningstar Learning Center. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHANIE KISSELL

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Big Sky Relief guides Morningstar Learning Center to a path of sustainability

There is a nationwide childcare crisis underway and Big Sky has not been immune. Faced with a staffing emergency during a pandemic, Morningstar Learning Center (MLC) board members rolled up their sleeves, asked for help and started hatching a plan with a Big Sky Relief steering committee. The result: higher pay and better benefits for employees.

“We are all in this pool fighting for resources of workers and it’s just hard to be competitive especially when you have for profit operations in Big Sky that can pay higher wages,” board secretary Stephanie Kissell said.

She referenced a recent study from the University of Montana highlighting issues with childcare services in Montana: “It’s systemic, statewide, nationwide, not just in Big Sky. We are fortunate to have a community that cares, that is willing to help us out financially.”

MLC saw a 100% turnover rate for staffing in 2019, a trend that continued into 2020. A press release outlined some likely reasons: the high cost of living in Big Sky, transient nature of residents, and naturally occurring job stressors. Staffing issues left members of the board of directors questioning if the center could continue operating.

Needless to say, it was a tough year for those who have invested endless volunteer hours toward the nonprofit’s goal of filling “a critical void in Big Sky’s basic community infrastructure by providing accessible, affordable early education childcare services.”

Testament to MLC’s footprint in Big Sky: Over 60 families with parents who are employed at over 30 local businesses receive childcare from the center.

The organization reached out to Big Sky Relief (BSR) with a grant request, which led to full support of MLC’s operations and the formation of a steering committee. As a result, there will be an added position, shifts to some hiring practices and a greater focus on sustainability. Five key goals outlined include: Recruit/hire an executive director to lead MLC and hire for the new position of Center Director; Recruit/hire fully qualified staff to fill all positions; be able to serve at 100% capacity of up to 63 kids per day by the end of six months; secure Big Sky Resort Area District funding to supplement the request for the next six months; develop components for long-term program goals and sustainability within the six-month grant timeframe.

With much on their plates the board adopted a divide and conquer approach: board vice president Emilee Rutz and Kissel are working with the BSR steering committee while board president Maren Dunn and board member Mackenzie Johnson serve on the hiring committee seeking an executive director and center director.

The grant establishes that there will need to be changes to the scholarship structure and tuition rates. No numbers are set in stone, but Kissell projects that a rise in tuition will be offset by greater availability of scholarships for local families. Basically, two separate scholarship programs will be streamlined to one scholarship process and a sliding scale. Spanish Peaks Community Foundation support has been a continual and a “huge” contributor to these scholarships.

As Dunn explained, while the scholarships are based on need, they are being revamped to “be more inclusive of families” than in the past.

“Our mission is to be an affordable childcare center for families in Big Sky. We want to be accessible to our community as a whole,” she said.

While MLC is casting a wide net to fill vacant positions, Dunn said they would prefer to hire locally – people who understand the community and MLC. In addition to the main leadership roles, they are also hiring a lead teacher and two assistant teachers.

“We are looking for anybody who is qualified,” she said.

Board members also want to highlight that the scholarships are donation-based. For further information visit

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