Report details agency's woes

State officials recommend seven "action items" for the Early Learning Coalition.

Published July 11, 2007

Board infighting, an untrained chief financial officer, poor staff morale and a lack of communication were among the findings of state officials who visited the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition in the wake of its executive director's forced resignation.

Officials from the state Office of Early Learning interviewed staffers at the nonprofit agency charged with doling out money and overseeing programs for young children in May, shortly after Jo-Ann K. Fuller quit as head of the agency. They published a six-page report chock-full of recommendations, including seven "action items."

"The report highlights some serious concerns," said Janet Chapman, executive director of the Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition, who reviewed the report at the St. Petersburg Times' request.

"Any inefficiencies in the management of these funds impact the children and families that we serve. That is a serious responsibility that all executive directors, boards, agency staff ( ... anyone involved in the process) must keep first and foremost in their minds at all times."

The agency has had problems since Pasco and Hernando merged their individual groups in 2005. Tensions heightened after the group decided not to give $228,000 to the Pasco School District for a preschool program for the working poor, only to wind up with a surplus it spent on minigrants.

The agency has also been through two directors in two years.

Board Chairwoman Lisa Hammond said the report confirmed information she gathered in her own interviews before asking Fuller to step down.

"I was shocked after the interviews," Hammond said Monday. "There was so much going on that neither I nor the board were privy to."

She said she did not realize that staffers had been forbidden to speak with board members.

"That should not be," she said.

Hammond and other board members began investigating after some staffers complained of unpaid overtime.

After Fuller resigned, Hammond said, she asked the state to step in.

"I really wanted an independent set of eyes to tell me if everything had been uncovered," Hammond said.

During the interviews, chief financial officer Debbie Antioco expressed frustration at "having little or no training on the invoices and other aspects of the financial arena. She expressed interest in some training to better understand the expectations of the state with regards to fiscal areas," the report said.

Antioco did not comment and referred questions to Hammond.

"Debbie said there were times she felt overwhelmed and felt she couldn't go to the executive director for guidance," Hammond said. "It did raise the whole issue of training, not just with Debbie, but across the board."

Fiscal problems were cited as a major reason for Fuller's departure. Child care centers were overpaid a total of $116,000 and had to return the money to the state.

Twice, the agency has had to spend a surplus at the end of the fiscal year or lose the money.

State officials urged the coalition staff to consider working toward more meaningful board reports, start working on contract negotiations for next year with agencies that provide services, and continue monitoring the budget during the transition to a new director.

It also asked that the staff put out monthly reports showing how much local money had been raised to match state and federal money. So far the coalition is short about $200,000 in matching money, with none coming from Pasco.

Also, state officials recommended that the board hire a labor attorney to review personnel policies and a payroll leasing company to act as a human resources administrator.

Items needing immediate action included working with a state analyst for help with day-to-day operations and with state officials to review and issue new contracts. Overtime issues also needed resolving.

Hammond said most issues in the report were being addressed.

Meanwhile, the search is on for an executive director. Statewide ads have run, and the deadline for applications is Friday. A budget workshop is set from 9 a.m. to noon today at the coalition headquarters on the Pasco/Hernando County Line Road.

"The staff is still nervous," Hammond said. "When we get an executive director, things will pretty much simmer down."

Most board members could not be reached. Blake Harding declined to comment, saying all comments should come from Hammond.

But Dave Meglay expressed concerns.

"It's like nobody knows what they're supposed to be doing," he said.