Coalition is a cash machine

Published May 31, 2007

SPRING HILL - For the second straight year, the Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition found itself racing to spend all its money before the end of its budget year.

This time around, the board put almost $310, 000 into items that didn't get much forethought and, some argued, did not get to the agency's core mission of providing learning opportunities to the area's youngest children.

The spending approved Wednesday includes $187, 298 in minigrants of up to $1, 000 for every participating child care provider in the two counties, $75, 000 in "quality initiative materials" and $21, 936 for a computer training lab.

Board member Dave Marshall, a longtime coalition critic, pounced on the poor planning. He suggested that the group should not have a surplus at such a late date, and it would not have if the agency were run properly.

Chairwoman Lisa Hammond did not disagree.

"You are absolutely correct. This money should have been budgeted, should have been watched, " she said. "We should not be in this position, just like we were last year."

She pledged that with the replacement of executive director Jo-Ann K. Fuller, who was forced out in April, it won't happen again.

Everyone in the room shared that hope. But if it should occur once more, some said, the coalition should manage the situation better. A couple of providers complained that the coalition did not provide clear directions for center operators to select items, and also that the agency pressured centers to make quick decisions.

In the face of such concerns, Marshall and fellow board member Dave Meglay voted against the surplus spending. Others said they could not abide sending the money back to the state, which is what would have happened if the board didn't allocate the cash.

"If we can get some money for our kids, why shouldn't we have it?" board member Steven Kanakis asked.

Some of the child care providers in the room echoed that sentiment. They criticized the members who opposed the motion, regardless of their reasons.

"At the end of next year, I certainly hope we don't have an overflow of cash in the budget, " said Karen Livengood, who runs Discovery World Learning Center in Hudson. "I think they're headed in the right direction. The only thing that concerns me is how people on the board could vote against money that could be lost."

Two analysts from the state Office of Early Learning, who have been helping the coalition through its management problems, said they see an agency moving ahead, too.

"All the important functions are being completed properly, " analyst Fred Bruneau said. "Children are being served. Providers are being paid."

Equally important, analyst Susan McPhee added, "They are taking notes of the lessons learned from this fiscal year to use next fiscal year."

Even so, the political rift between the two entities, who merged in 2005, continues. Sore points remain, including the ouster of local management firm Youth and Family Alternatives, and the decision to stop funding the Pasco school district's prekindergarten program for needy children.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Wednesday that his key aide is drafting legislation that would split the coalition in two. That's what constituents in both counties want, he said.

If people disagree, they can come to legislative delegation meetings and voice their opinions, Fasano added.

Hammond said she hoped that people would get past the politics, as so many other Pasco-Hernando joint efforts have, and work together for the good of the children.

"I don't know how to quiet the dissension. All I can do is keep pointing to the data, " she said. "When I look at our outcomes ... I see what we're doing. We're serving more children than ever."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:

What's in a minigrant?

The Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition will give up to $1, 000 to participating child care providers, based on their enrollment, to purchase from a list of "quality items" for their centers. The list includes:

Classroom set of 307 blocks, $505

Alphabet puppets, $127.96

Four-station art easel, $240

Sing & Read Theme Collection, $117.56

Number puzzles, set of 12, $32

Seating squares carpet, 8x14, $384