Pre-K providers owe state

Published May 12, 2007

SPRING HILL - Some providers of voluntary prekindergarten programs in Pasco County have been overpaid and will have to pay back the state, the chairwoman of the local regulatory agency said Friday.

Just how much money is involved is still being determined, said Lisa Hammond, chairwoman of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition. The state Office of Early Learning will assist in the investigation, she said.

Hammond's remarks came at the coalition's first meeting after the forced resignation of its executive director, Jo-Ann K. Fuller. Faced with the choice to quit or be fired, Fuller stepped down Wednesday after staffers complained to board members about Fuller's management practices.

Fuller, whose annual salary was $75, 000, asked for a severance package. The board unanimously rejected her request. She will, however, be entitled to 13 weeks of pay based on leave time she accrued.

At Friday's meeting, Hammond elaborated on the problems surrounding Fuller's less-than-one-year tenure as chief of the agency.

She said the overpayments in the pre-K program involved children who dropped out but were not removed from the payment system. The other problem involved the "wrap around rate, " money paid for children who used the same provider for both pre-K and child care.

That reimbursement rate may have been inflated in the calculations, Hammond said.

Areas needing further review involved overtime pay and other salary issues, work from home policies, job descriptions and policies regarding confidential files being held offsite.

"Not all of these issues have been fully investigated, " Hammond said. "However, the gravity caused me to ask for Jo-Ann's resignation."

Fuller did not return calls Friday.

A spokeswoman for the state Agency for Workforce Innovation said Friday that discrepancies turned up in a recent review and the coalition was asked to reconcile them. She said the state would send staff members to help the coalition while it was without a permanent director.

Hammond made a point of praising staffers for their job performance and acknowledging their courage in talking with board members.

"We just have a wealth of experience and creativity within our ranks, " she said. "Some of them pretty much feel like traitors. I'm grateful they came forward instead of quitting."

Despite the kudos for staff, the meeting was marked with acrimony among some board members.

Board member Barbara Renczkowski called on fellow member David Marshall, a vocal critic of the agency, to resign after he renewed his call in the St. Petersburg Times for each county to return to separate boards.

"I don't think he's on board with us, " she said.

Marshall was out of town and did not attend Friday's meeting. He said he considers it his responsibility as a public servant to ask questions.

He said Fuller's resignation is confirmation that he was asking the right questions.

"Hopefully this will filter to the powers that be in Tallahassee, " Marshall said. "Somebody needs to look at this and say there's lots of smoke at this place."

State Sen. Mike Fasano said through an aide Friday that the latest problems give credence to those calling for a split.

"The problems seem to be continuing, " said Greg Giordano, Fasano's chief legislative assistant. He said Fasano can't file a bill to split the coalition because this year's session has ended, but added that he was monitoring the situation.

Gigi Durr, who runs Building Blocks Preschool in New Port Richey, called the overpayment the latest in a series of hardships child care centers must endure.

She said Childhood Development Services, the Ocala-based agency overseeing payments, recently started paying reimbursements for voluntary pre-K at the end of the month instead of the beginning.

"That was another bombshell we had to deal with, " she said. "It's one big headache for us."

Lisa Buie can be reached at 813 909-4604 or toll free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com.