SPRING HILL — In an effort to serve more preschoolers with decreasing amounts of state money, the Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties is exploring a merger with its counterpart to the north that serves Citrus and four other counties.
"As you are well aware from our meetings and conversations, I anticipate that funding of our Coalition for the 2012-13 year and beyond will continue to be very challenging, as we experienced this year," executive director Jim Farrelly wrote in a recent letter to the staff.
"In order to continue to serve the primary mission of our Coalition, i.e. extraordinary services to children and families, management and leadership needs to think and plan 'outside the box.' "
The Pasco-Hernando coalition took a $1.3 million hit to its budget this year, while the Nature Coast Early Learning Coalition, which includes Citrus, Sumter, Levy, Dixie and Gilchrist counties, lost more than $500,000. The groups operate with state money but also must raise local matching funds.
Farrelly said the moves are preliminary and anticipates no changes until next July at the earliest and maybe not even until 2013. He said the conversations between him and Nature Coast executive director Sonya Bosanko had been positive but described a possible merger as "complex." He said he expects to have to overcome political hurdles on a number of fronts.
The bottom line, however, is about being able to serve kids, he said.
Farrelly's letter included supportive comments from Lisa Hammond, chairwoman of the Pasco and Hernando coalition board, to her group's members.
"At our last Executive Committee meeting," Hammond wrote, "I asked for permission to engage in this exploration, anticipating that this is the direction that the State will take in the future. I believe we are better suited to direct our future, than to have it directed."
She said the chairman of the Nature Coast group asked his board about exploring a merger and received "a resounding yes" to move forward.
"Please know that I am very excited about the prospect of broadening our collective quality, potentially reducing costs, and increasing our reach to all of our children," Hammond said. "The combined quality and talents of Pasco-Hernando and Nature Coast would be incomparable."
Farrelly expects the merger may mean a loss of positions to save money, but he expects attrition to take care of that.
"My hope is we can save all the staff who want to stay with us and still transfer the cost savings to children," Farrelly said.
He also hopes to avoid the growing pains of the last merger about six years ago, when Pasco and Hernando's coalitions became one agency. The fallout could be seen in disagreements over funding and contracts and culminated in board members barely speaking to one another and the former executive director resigning, saying he feared for his safety. His successor was fired about a year later amid employee complaints about wage and hour violations. The infighting prompted the state to send in representatives, who called the coalition "dysfunctional."
After Farrelly arrived, however, relationships improved, and the agency began winning awards. Relationships with local governments improved, and Farrelly also started a nonprofit foundation as a fundraising arm.
"I'm a good student of history," he said. "Everybody is going to have a say and a vote."
The state's 31 early learning coalitions were started by the Florida Legislature as part of welfare reform to administer subsidized child care programs. Later, they began overseeing the statewide universal voluntary pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds.