The leader of Pinellas County's Early Learning Coalition apologized to the organization's board on Thursday for failing to spend $2.4 million last year, money that could have been used to put more local children in day care, but was ultimately returned to the state.
The funds, a mix of federal and state dollars, are distributed by the coalition and are used to lower the cost of day care for poor parents who can't afford to pay the market rate. Though it's common for spending to fluctuate, the Pinellas agency ended its fiscal year with more unspent money than any other coalition, vexing some child care advocates who estimated that as many as 500 children could have benefited from the money.
Instead, state officials divided Pinellas' $2.4 million among other needy counties like Miami-Dade and Hillsborough.
"This shouldn't have happened under my leadership, and I'm sorry it did," the coalition's CEO Janet Chapman wrote in a letter to the board.
Gathering in the coalition's office in Clearwater on Thursday, Chapman took questions from board members and advocates about why her agency did not open the program to eligible older children when it realized it would likely end the year with unspent money.
Chapman said the bulk of the surplus came from a sharp decline in enrollment after the board decided to lower the age cutoff to from 12 to 9 years old, in an attempt to serve younger children.
"I truly thought we'd probably fill those spots very quickly with little babies and infants because I knew I had 2,000 of them on the wait list," she said. "My miscalculation: I couldn't move fast enough."
It can take weeks to enroll a new child, she said. By the time the agency began making its way through the waiting list, it didn't have enough time or employees to hit its target of 6,000 children.
Though Chapman had previously told the Tampa Bay Times that cost cutting created most of the surplus, she told board members that the savings accounted for $400,000 of the $2.4 million.
Today, she said, her office is staffed and the program is fully enrolled. She now gets a daily report listing how many children have begun day care and how many are no longer getting the subsidies, allowing her to make adjustments if the numbers suddenly dip or spike.
The unspent funds have particularly irked day care owners, many of whom run small businesses out of their homes and depend heavily on enrolling children on government scholarships. Last year, when the number of children receiving those subsidies fell, many day care operators said they suffered financial hardships and had to lay off staff.
"I have kids that I subsidize," Twanna Monroe, who runs the Infinite Potential Learning Center in St. Petersburg, told the board. "We do have kids in our centers that could have used that money."
In response to an article in the Times about the unspent funds, the coalition's board approved on Thursday hiring the Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker Hall for "crisis management." Board members voted to pay the company $7,500 to train staff on how to handle questions from reporters.
"The ultimate goal is to not be in the newspaper again," said Julie Daniels, chair of the coalition's board. "Unless it's a glowing, beautiful article."
Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected]