CLEARWATER — The parents of about 635 school-age children in Pinellas County must find different after-school services following cutbacks by the county's Early Learning Coalition to state child care subsidies for the working poor.
The group has been subsidizing child care for kids through age 12, or about the sixth grade. But beginning Aug. 22, the first day of school, the group will cut off services to children after the third grade. However, it will continue to serve older children who are under protective custody and whose families are on welfare.
The change comes after an emotional 11-4 vote Thursday by the coalition's board of directors. Board members say a shrinking budget and growing demand made the cuts inevitable.
"We're dropping the ball on 3,600 kids now," board chairman Ken Peluso said, referring to a waiting list of local children.
"We're the Early Learning Coalition. I'm not saying after-school care (for older children) isn't a priority. By all means, it is. We just don't have the money to fund it and it's not our function."
The coalition serves about 7,000 low-income families and pays child care providers subsidies of about $3,700 annually per child, said executive director Janet Chapman. But its budget hasn't grown beyond $30 million in at least a decade.
Peluso said the situation will worsen if the Florida Legislature adopts a subcommittee's recommendation to cut school readiness funding by 11 percent.
As it stands, nearly half of the coalition's funding — 46 percent — goes toward school-age kids, Chapman said. The remaining 54 percent currently benefits children from birth through age 5, the agency's target population.
"Ultimately the primary goal of the school readiness program is to prepare children to enter kindergarten ready," Chapman said.
That's why the coalition earlier this year formed a task force of education experts to research which age group that early learning has the greatest effect on.
Service-slashing options presented to the board Thursday included restricting services to children up to kindergarten or age 5; or through the end of first grade, about age 7; or through third grade, about age 9.
The proposal rankled community members, who attended Thursday's meeting by the dozens to hear more or speak out against the cuts. One speaker was Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who noted that most crimes committed by juveniles occur after school between 3 and 7 p.m.
"I don't need any more business," Dillinger said. "I have more than I can handle."
However, after much emotional and heated discussion, board members settled on the third-grade option. The coalition's task force said providing services at least through third grade is crucial. That's because the gains made through early intervention services from birth through kindergarten might be lost without follow-through services to at least age 8.
Chapman said it's unlikely that the reduction in services will totally eliminate the waiting list of nearly 3,000 children age 9 and under currently seeking Early Learning services. But she said it will free up space for younger children who research shows need it most.
Some board members said they were torn as they reluctantly voted for the cutbacks because, they said, they had no better options. One board member couldn't decide and abstained from voting.
"For every infant or toddler we pull off the wait list, we're going to be pulling two (older children) out of after-school care," said board member and acting Juvenile Welfare Board chair Martha Lenderman. "I think we are going to end up with kids being left at home or even worse, looking after young siblings."
She voted no Thursday.
However, Peluso and other board members pointed to their task force's findings that other local programs are available for older children.
"The simple answer is the responsibility for what happens to those children is going to remain in the hands of the parents," Peluso said, adding that many school-age child care providers have other funding sources that might allow them to continue services.
"It's a tough decision," Peluso said. "I hate turning any parent away. But what I hate more is telling the parent of a 3-year-old we don't have the funds to teach their child.
"The earlier the intervention, the greater the dollar savings, money that does not have to be spent on the legal system and judiciary, et cetera.
"The better for everyone — not only the child, but the local economy and the state."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.