Up to 407 school-age children in Pasco and Hernando counties who receive government-subsidized child care could lose services if the board that oversees the program decides to eliminate them to make room for younger kids.
The Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties is considering that option as it struggles with meeting the needs of growing numbers of younger children with limited resources.
The agency now serves kids from birth through age 12 from families who receive welfare assistance or are in protective custody or classified as working poor.
"We don't have the money to be able to continue to do that without establishing and maintaining a long waiting list," said James Farrelly, the nonprofit agency's executive director.
The agency last year was able to eliminate its waiting list with help from $2.4 million in federal stimulus money, but that dried up as more and more families affected by the economy needed help.
In early January, the board restarted the waiting list. In about six weeks, it grew to nearly 600, Farrelly said. It now is 322, but for about two months, no spaces were available.
Farrelly said he found himself turning away 2- and 3-year-olds while older kids received care. That put it at odds with the agency's mission, which is to "prepare children to enter and succeed in school," Farrelly said.
"It seemed a bit incongruous," he said, describing the dilemma as Solomon-esque.
Of the 4,729 children who receive the subsidy, 21 percent are ages 6-12.
The agency's governing board is set to discuss the issue at a meeting set for 1 p.m. Monday at Pasco Hernando Community College's Brooksville campus.
Pasco-Hernando would not be the only agency that limits care to youngsters. Of the 31 coalitions statewide, only 13 offer care through age 12. Polk cuts off care at age 11, while Orange ends it at 8 and Sarasota at 6. Pinellas will begin offering care only to kids through age 5 starting in September. Hillsborough, which receives local money, still serves kids through age 12.
The decision would not affect school-age children who are in protective custody or whose families receive welfare payments. The working poor, however, would have to find other arrangements, most of which are costlier than the sliding fee they now pay.
Hernando's lowest weekly rate for school age kids is $40, while Pasco's is $30.
With two kids and a minimum wage job, "the parent starts to question whether they should work," said Farrelly, who hopes community groups will rally to help meet the need.
Farrelly said eliminating older kids primarily would affect only two centers, the Salvation Army of West Pasco and Little People's Preschool in Brooksville. Both operators have expressed concerns, he said.
Kevin Nissen, owner of Little People's said he worries older kids will be left home to fend for themselves or be put with bad caregivers if they are forced out of the program.
"Most children aren't mature enough to handle that," he said. "It's not safe."
He said parents now can barely afford their required co-pay, much less a full fee.
"I can work with them, but I don't even think they can afford that," he said.
Nissen said cutting older kids also would affect his bottom line. School age kids are less costly because they attend fewer hours require less supervision than preschoolers. So he uses the older kids' fees to help offset the higher costs of caring for babies and toddlers.
"If I have go to out of business, they've also displaced 50 (younger) kids," he said.
Farrelly said he wished he could serve all ages but must set priorities.
He said whatever decision is reached, he's prepared to give parents adequate time to find other places for their kids and will provide help finding alternatives. He also said the board could decide to grandfather in children or make exceptions for families with one preschool child and one grade-school age child as well as older kids with special needs.
"There's no clear or simple solution here," Farrelly said. "When you think about our mission it becomes very difficult to bypass a 3-year-old, a 4-year or a 5-year-old in favor of an 11-year-old."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.