Pasco-Hernando coalition for kids is talking divorce

Published May 17, 2007

When officials first announced plans to merge two Pasco and Hernando agencies that oversee programs for very young children, Hernando's director mused about the possibilities.

"As springtime approaches, I believe that there is symbolism in the season for our coalitions to merge and bloom, " Jo-Ann K. Fuller wrote in a reflection.

Two years later, Fuller was forced from her job as head of the merged group, and critics in both counties say it should be allowed to die.

State Sen. Mike Fasano said he'd be happy to spray the weed killer.

"I think it would behoove the counties in the merger that took place a few years ago to separate, " said Fasano, who agreed to file a bill granting the divorce. "It sounds like both parties are not getting along. Certainly that's not the direction that's all supposed to take."

The Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition, one of 34 similar groups across Florida, has been plagued with problems since it was born in 2005.

The two agencies had operated separately, but state law enacted in the wake of the new voluntary prekindergarten program mandated that smaller counties merge to cut administrative costs. Pasco was large enough to stand alone, but Hernando needed a partner.

Two months after the merger, coalition members clashed over whether to allocate $228, 000 to a Pasco School District prekindergarten program that provided meals and medical care for 300 needy kids.

After several votes, the board denied the district's request, only to sit on the money and be forced to spend it at the end of the fiscal year on mini grants.

Since then, relations have further soured among some Pasco and Hernando board members, with one board member calling on another to resign.

Fuller, who inherited the job of executive director of the merged group last year after her boss resigned, was forced to step down this month after staffers complained about poor management practices. Complaints included the overtime required to resolve $116, 000 in overpayments to child care providers. The providers have already repaid the money.

The disarray at the coalition has folks in both counties expressing concerns.

Pasco school officials, still smarting from the rejection of their prekindergarten program for needy kids, said at Tuesday night's School Board meeting that they want to make sure the coalition has enough fiscal oversight.

"I was appalled at the way the money was spent at the last minute last year, " School Board member Marge Whaley said. "I would be really upset if it happens again this year because of lack of planning."

On Wednesday, coalition board member and vocal critic Dave Marshall called into question plans to spend a projected $720, 950 surplus.

Two of the proposed expenditures are covering a $230, 000 deficit in Hernando County and $124, 000 to move half of the children off the Hernando waiting list, he said, "but I wonder and my notes don't help me with an answer, where does the money come from to cover these two items? I really hope that the Hernando deficit is not covered by underutilizing funds in Pasco."

Not all criticism is coming from Pasco.

A representative of the Hernando County Day Care Providers Association said Wednesday that his group supports a split.

"We're within just a couple of children of being a standalone county anyway, " said Shane Harris, owner of the Learning Tree in Brooksville. "We ran smooth and well until they did the merger."

He said communication continues to be a problem.

"We're told nothing, " he said. "The changes (the coalition members) make - by the time we get them they're a month old."

Warren May, a spokesman for the state Agency for Workforce Innovation, the organization that oversees the early learning agencies, said he would have to find out how large a county has to be to have its own coalition and what is required for a breakup.

Coalition chairwoman Lisa Hammond could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, the coalition issued a news release touting its success rate in preparing participants for kindergarten.

Preliminary results showed 66 percent of Pasco/Hernando pre-kindergarten providers scored above the state average, with 26 percent in the highest quartile.

"The coalition staff and child care providers have worked very hard to implement a difficult program in a short amount of time, " Hammond said in the release. "We can all be proud of the quality of instruction our little ones are receiving and the preparation they will have for school success."

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