Facing pressure from parents and child care providers worried about latchkey kids, the board that oversees subsidized child care for low-income families refused to vote last month on a measure that would have ended after-school services for older children.
Come back with more information, members of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition said.
After forming a task force of staff members and child care providers, executive director Jim Farrelly will return today with a compromise. Instead of a cutoff age of 6, as originally considered, the plan is to phase out services for children ages 9 to 12. That would free up money to help more under the age 5, which is the agency's target group.
"Without a change in age range, many of these (younger) children would remain on a long waiting list for child care services, anticipated to eclipse 2,000 children during 2010-2011," Farrelly wrote to board members.
The reason for the age change boils down to money. The coalition was propped up last year with federal stimulus money, but will operate with $1.6 million less this fiscal year as that funding source dries up.
Farrelly said that lowering the age became necessary only after enacting other changes. The nonprofit agency established a wait list for child care, used attrition to cut coalition staff, froze administrative spending, carried over as much stimulus money as possible and sought additional grants.
Farrelly called the discussion "painful" and said at least 18 of Florida's 30 other early learning coalitions have lowered age ranges. Only 13 early learning coalitions still serve children through age 12 — and at least two of them are considering lowering age eligibility.
Farrelly said the change would not affect children who are in protective custody, those whose families receive welfare payments and kids with special needs.
Older children currently in programs would be allowed to stay until Jan. 1. No new older children, however, would be accepted after July 1.
The more gradual transition would give parents of currently enrolled children about seven months to find alternatives. Coalition staff members also would work with parents to find low-cost care.
Farrelly's memo also mentions the Boys and Girls Clubs in Port Richey and Lacoochee and YMCA of the Suncoast as possible choices. He also said some day care centers may offer multi-child discounts so parents with a younger child and an older child might be able to keep them in the same place.
The Boys and Girls Clubs provide transportation from school, snacks and activities from 2 to 6 p.m. on school days, plus full-day programs on school holidays. The cost per semester ranges from $200 to $300 on a sliding scale. A summer program also is offered.
The YMCA of the Suncoast currently serves 75 subsidized children ages 9 to 12. If the coalition's subsidy ends, the parents can seek financial help from the Y, which has a policy not to turn anyone away due to an inability to pay, Farrelly wrote.
"I think they came up with a good plan," said board member Steven Kanakis, a child psychologist from New Port Richey. Kanakis said at the earlier meeting that he wanted a transition plan so the fewest people would be affected. "We don't want to hurt people."
Laura Mykel, owner of ABC Academy in Holiday and a member of the task force, said she was pleased with the fact that care would be extended until January.
"My concern was if they were going to stop the funding July 1, it would put a lot of children at risk over the summer," she said. She also has two autistic children at her center and is relieved that they would be exempt under the new proposal.
Mykel said kids 9 to 12 are not mature enough to be home alone, and gangs often exploit their vulnerability by acting as a surrogate family.
She said she is trying to make up for the lack of a subsidy by applying for grants that pay for after-school programs such as science enrichment or 4-H.
She fears that many of her parents, who work in Pinellas, won't put their kids in a Boys and Girls Club in Port Richey.
"They're not going to drive out of their way," she said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.