SPRING HILL — Presenting a more positive image, providing more support for day care operators and, most important, finding more cash from private sources were among the goals board members of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition discussed Thursday.
The organization, which oversees subsidized child care programs for the poor as well as voluntary prekindergarten programs for all kids in the two counties, met for an all-day strategic planning session. By the time the meeting ended, flip chart papers marked up with ideas covered the walls.
"We've got to get real creative at finding other sources of funding," chairwoman Lisa Hammond told the group.
The agency took a 1 percent budget cut from the state this year but was spared the draconian 10 percent hit it had anticipated in the wake of revenue shortfalls, thanks to the efforts of state Sen. Mike Fasano, who appeared Thursday to accept a framed set of handprints from a 4-year-old boy as a token of appreciation.
But the close call put a real scare into board members.
Board member Burt Harres proposed setting up a separate foundation that could take tax-deductible donations.
"The funding to serve everyone is not there," agreed board member Susan Arnett.
Colleen Wolfe, owner of Sugar Plums First Class in Hudson, told board members how her crushing financial burden nets her 42 cents at the end of each month.
"It's really hard to pay staff more money when they get the education they want and need," she said. "It's really hard to do a food program when the cost of milk has gone so high. I went on early Social Security to get a check so that I could help pay my bills."
Wolfe, who has been in the business 18 years, said she accepts three kids now at no charge because their father has no job and their mother gets only 20 to 25 hours of work per week. She can't bear to turn them away, but she knows she can't continue to operate like that much longer.
She said she once tried seeking help from the private sector.
"Do you know the kind of looks you get? I literally got laughed at."
Harres said too often people like Wolfe are exploited.
"I believe a lot of people play to the passion and compassion and figure they'll suck it up and sacrifice," he said. Board members decided they would try again to persuade state officials to increase center reimbursement rates, which have remained flat for 10 years. Realizing that won't happen anytime soon they sought to look for other ways to support day care operators.
Hand in hand with seeking private money would be improving public relations, which suffered the past few years after the two county coalitions merged. Board members bickered over whether the program would emphasize serving more kids across the board or if more money should be allocated to improving quality while serving fewer kids.
On Thursday, board members, some of them new, said they wanted to put the bad blood behind them. They want to work on ways to get the coalition's name out and explain its purpose to the public in order to gain more support.
"I want them to know our schools, our centers, are not just babysitting our children," executive director Jim Farrelly said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.