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BENNINGTON — U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, emphasizing the importance of child care as a national priority rather than a partisan issue, announced here Wednesday that he had included $750,000 in a Senate spending bill for a significant expansion of the Learning Tree Early Education Program on the campus of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

The expansion, still in the planning phase, would help the center grow from its current 59 children to “at least 100” children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old from the community, as well as the children of Southwestern Vermont Health Care employees.

Presently, Learning Tree is located in the oldest building on campus, once the home to the hospital’s nursing school.

Still in the planning phase

Southwestern Vermont Health Care President Tom Dee said details, such as location, are still in the planning phase, with the main campus and the former Southern Vermont College campus both being considered. The work would require a significant investment, but in turn, it would address needs for the hospital and greater Bennington, he said.

“There’s a significant community need, too,” he said. “A majority of our kids right now are from our health care workforce, but there’s a lot who aren’t. We’re trying to meet both needs.

“Seventy-five percent of our workforce are women. And having child care on site [is] an incredible benefit to us,” he said.

Addressing child care needs, and turning around recent losses in women’s participation in the workforce, “should not be a Republican or Democratic issue,” Leahy said. “That should be an American issue.”

As the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Leahy helped restore the practice of funding specific community projects through the annual appropriations bills. Communities know their own needs better than Washington bureaucrats do, he said.

Leahy said he’d champion the funding personally as the lead negotiator for the Senate version of the appropriations bill.

“Vermont’s voice will be heard,” Leahy said. “It will be heard over and over again.”

With about 30 hospital leaders and elected officials in attendance, Leahy, Dee and Aly Richards, the CEO of Let’s Grow Kids, all stressed the importance of child care — not only for education and social development of future leaders, but as a necessity in attracting and retaining employees.

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3 out of 5 lack child care

According to Let’s Grow Kids, a nonprofit advocacy group for affordable access to quality education, three out of five Vermont children lacked access to quality child care before the COVID-19 pandemic. In Bennington County, Richards said Wednesday, that translates to a need for 555 additional slots and 132 additional educators.

“We are fortunate to have representatives like Senator Leahy in Congress, who are fighting for significant investments because they understand that child care is essential infrastructure for Vermont’s children and families, as well as our economy,” Richards said.

Let’s Grow Kids previously worked with SVHC in 2020 to secure grant funding that expanded Learning Tree’s capacity by 17 children, to 59. Nancy Noel, the center’s director, said there’s still a waiting list of 20 children for the center.

Learning Tree is an accredited facility with a five-star rating from the state of Vermont’s STARS program, a quality assurance program for preschools. Dee’s grandchildren have been students at Learning Tree; he described seeing them peer through the windows while he sat in board meetings.

Noel said Learning Tree’s staff includes former students of the program and educators with master’s degrees, as well as recent college graduates just starting out in the field.

“You’re as good as your staff,” Noel said. “Children are going to be replacing us and taking our jobs. And if we don’t give them a head start on the building blocks, we’re in trouble.”

Will he run again?

Asked if he plans to seek a ninth term in the Senate, Leahy, who was first elected in 1974 at the age of 34, said he hasn’t made that decision yet. He plans to make it as he’s done before — while snowshoeing with his wife, Marcelle Leahy, at their home in Middlesex.

The gathering with Leahy took place under a tent near the outdoor playground for Learning Tree. SVHC trustee’s chairman Tommy Harmon and vice chairwoman Kathleen Fisher were in attendance, as well as lawmakers including state Reps. David Durfee and Mary Morrissey and state Sen. Dick Sears.

Also watching was a security detail; Leahy, as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, is now third in the line of succession to the presidency, behind Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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