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Child care providers on edge

They rely on advice from License Board inspectors. Will they lose that aid if departments merge?

By BY JOSE CARDENAS
Published August 5, 2007


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photo
[TED McLAREN | Times]
Precious People Learning Center teacher Maritza Dustin (right) plays with Oscar Poland, 2, shortly before the children go home on Thursday afternoon, August 2, 2007. A.J. Shelton, 3, looks on from teacher Josie Creasy's (left) arms. Kristan Ramos, 2, (bottom left) and Ben Gorman, 2, (center orange tee) run around the room.

Usually business owners complain about the government inspectors who keep an eye on them.

But in Pinellas, some owners of child care centers and in-home day care businesses are rallying behind the county's License Board, the agency that inspects their facilities.

The reason?

Money.

Faced with reduced budgets, local officials are talking about cross-training inspectors from the License Board and the county Health Department to do each other's jobs at child care businesses.

Currently, both the License Board and Health Department send inspectors to child care centers, but they check on different things.

Child care providers say the License Board's inspectors, who have degrees in early childhood development, not only do inspections, but dish out useful advice on child care.

In comparison, the Health Department's inspectors have science degrees, the day care owners point out.

So they ask: Will inspections after a merger focus more on health and environmental safety conditions and less on other aspects of child care?

"As a private provider I look toward the licensing board for answers and support to some of the most amazing questions," said Barbra Mastrota, owner of Precious People Learning Center in Palm Harbor. "How can I be reassured that the persons chosen to replace these specialists have the answers?"

Take, for example, situations that might involve an abused child.

"When it comes to that kind of situation," Mastrota said. "We rely heavily on their guidance: how to deal with the parents, the police, Department of Children and Families."

* * *

As proposed, the License Board's inspectors would still be part of any new team, which would be based at the Health Department.

The merger could include cross-training of employees from both agencies so they could learn each others' jobs, officials say.

But what sort of training and how many Health Department employees might be involved has not been determined.

At their meeting last week, the License Board's board of directors agreed to participate in a committee that will study the idea.

The committee also includes the Health Department and the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board, which is the License Board's biggest source of funds.

If the proposal goes forward, officials want to complete a merger by Oct. 1.

* * *

Pinellas is one of seven counties that license child care facilities locally.

As a result, those counties have more stringent standards than ones used elsewhere in Florida by the state Department of Children and Families.

Licence Board inspectors visit facilities at least twice a year.

They check myriad standards that deal with the care of children. Those include the ratio of children to caregivers, as well as the nutritional value of food served, medication records and whether children get enough exercise time.

Over the decades, the inspectors have become part of the close-knit support system that providers rely on for advice.

"There's a tremendous networking, sharing of information," said Ginny Cannon, spokeswoman for the Pinellas Early Childhood Association.

"The inspectors have been in the same business that we are in," said Cannon, owner of A Ginny's Little Giants in St. Petersburg.

The things the Health Department inspectors look for include food preparation, cleanliness of refrigerators and water quality.

* * *

The possible merger of both agencies to inspect child care facilities in part has roots in the rollback of property taxes.

In its latest budget, the Juvenile Welfare Board cut $448,000 from the approximately $1-million it has previously provided the License Board.

Consequently, the License Board will go from 15 inspectors to 9, whether or not it merges with the Health Department.

Getting fewer tax dollars is forcing officials to search for ways to improve the efficiency of the organizations they fund, Juvenile Welfare Board officials say.

"We are going to have to talk about the blending of administrative efforts on behalf of like-services," Juvenile Welfare Board executive director Gay Lancaster said.

The goal is to reduce the administrative costs of the License Board by blending its operations with the Health Department's, welfare board officials said. Inspections can also be made more efficient.

"Our hope is that we have an opportunity to cross-train people," said Debra Prewitt, the Juvenile Welfare Board's director of public policy. "Eventually, instead of having two people show up for an inspection ... only one person will be doing both phases."

Of the seven counties with local licensing powers, Pinellas is the only one that does not already use the Health Department for child care facility inspections, welfare board officials point out.

* * *

The inspection system being discussed is modeled after the one used by Palm Beach County.

In Palm Beach, inspectors have an environmental health background, said Courtney Shippey, the health department's environmental manager.

But within a year of being hired, inspectors are required to get certification in child care and family day-care programs.

"There are so many opportunities for training and dialogue," said Shippey. "We are very much on top of all these other issues of child care development."

But in Pinellas, some child care providers are skeptical that cross-training would work.

"To think that they can be trained easily to be an early childhood professional," said Susan Weber, a Largo parent speaking at the Licence Board meeting, " is really an insult to those of us that are."

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

 Fast Facts:

421 Child care centers in Pinellas County.

39,400 children. Capacity of those businesses.

670 Approximate number in-home day care businesses.

3,600 children. Capacity of those businesses.

15 Current number of License Board inspectors.

5 License Board inspectors for centers, after budget cuts.

4 License Board inspectors for in-home day care, after budget cuts.

2 Minimum number of inspections now done annually.

[Last modified August 4, 2007, 21:49:38]


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