NEW PORT RICHEY — Parents of some elementary school-age children in Pasco and Hernando counties who get state help to pay for care before or after school might see that program end this year.
Faced with shrinking budgets and a growing wait list of pre-schoolers, the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties is considering cutting services to kids ages 6 and older.
"We are the Early Learning Coalition," said Jim Farrelly, the agency's executive director. "Our mission is to ensure that children ages birth to 5 succeed in school."
Farrelly said he would like to be able to help older kids, but the agency wait list for younger children keeps growing. At one point, it topped 2,000. It now stands at 500.
"Every school-age child we subsidize is taking up a space that could go to a child age birth to 5," he said. The program works like this: Low-income working parents who qualify get money from the state to help pay for child care. Parents also pay a portion based on a sliding fee scale.
Exceptions to the age range include children in protective services and those whose parents are on welfare. Another exception may be children with special needs who would be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Farrelly said only a few hundred school-age kids in both counties would be affected, and the change would be phased in. As of July 1, no new kids would be accepted. Those currently enrolled would be allowed to remain until Dec. 31.
The coalition is holding a special public meeting on Feb. 27 at Pasco-Hernando Community College's New Port Richey campus to discuss the matter and hear from parents and providers. No action is expected to be taken at that meeting. The next regular meeting of the board is set for March 28 at 8:30 a.m. at the coalition office on (Pasco-Hernando) County Line Road.
At the special meeting, coalition board members will also review community alternatives for school-age children who do not fall into the "exceptions" category.
This isn't the first time the coalition has reduced services to school kids. In 2010, it stopped subsidizing kids ages 9 to 12. Farrelly had wanted then to limit subsidies to the youngest kids, but the agency's board decided to compromise amid an outcry from providers and parents.
Pasco-Hernando is not alone. A year later, Pinellas did the same thing, despite pleas from child advocates and Pasco-Pinellas Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who said it would lead to more juvenile delinquency.
"I don't need any more business," Dillinger said at the time. "I have more than I can handle."
Farrelly said most of the state's 31 early learning coalitions already limit services to the youngest kids or are moving in that direction.
Providers say a change would cut into their already razor-thin profit margins but would be hardest on parents who have a pre-schooler and an elementary-age child. Many have to work right up until child care centers close, so driving to two places to pick up each child would be almost impossible.
"I think a lot more kids will be going home and be what they call latchkey kids," said Helen Sawyer, owner of Ms. Helen's Building Blocks Preschool in Brooksville. She has 22 kids in after-school care. Of those, about half are subsidized. She's licensed for 112 but has only about 82 children at her center, so she doesn't buy the argument that older kids are squeezing out younger ones.
"I think that's the way most of the coalitions are going," she said. "The bottom line is that Mr. Farrelly usually gets what he wants."