More than $2 million in federal and state money intended to help poor families pay for child care in Pinellas County has gone unspent this year, even though hundreds of children could have qualified for the subsidies, advocates said.
Last month, the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, which distributes child care subsidies to the working poor and other eligible families, returned $2.4 million to the state. No other coalition in Florida had so much unspent money, according to the Office of Early Learning, which divided up the surplus among other needy counties such as Hillsborough and Miami-Dade.
The subsidies can be life-changing for poor families who can't afford the full price of day care. For a few dollars a day, they can send their children to one of more than 600 county-licensed centers. The government picks up the rest of the tab.
It was not an absence of need that left the coalition unable to spend the funds, said its executive director, Janet Chapman.
"It wasn't a matter of I didn't have enough kids — there were enough children," Chapman told the Juvenile Welfare Board at a meeting last week, where members demanded an explanation.
"I didn't have enough people, even working Saturdays and doing outreach parties in the evenings at the YMCA, to try to get people processed," she said. "I just literally cannot process that many people."
Last July, the state gave Pinellas more than $27 million for subsidized child care and one year to spend it.
It's a challenge that Florida's 30 coalitions face annually as they try to balance fluctuating enrollments and ever-changing budgets. Spending the money can be difficult, said David McGerald, who oversees Hillsborough's coalition. It's common, he said, to end the year with a modest surplus or shortfall. His organization ran a deficit this year but received an additional $500,000 after surpluses were redistributed.
"There were plenty of options they could have explored to spend that money that they chose not to do," said Paul Runyon, executive director of Coordinated Child Care in Pinellas, a nonprofit that, until last year, oversaw the distribution of the funding.
For years the coalition had contracted out the job of interviewing families and determining eligibility to Coordinated Child Care, but the groups parted ways after deciding there was too much overlap.
The Pinellas coalition realized it would likely have a large surplus early in the fiscal year.
Chapman said the extra money came from the cost cutting and "economizing" she did when she gained control of the funding. Those savings are what left her with millions, she said.
Runyon called that explanation "a stretch."
What happened is that the coalition began the year with too few children enrolled in the program, he said.
According to Runyon, if the group were to spend all of its money, it would need to hit its target of 5,900 children in subsidized day care per month. The coalition's records show that in September, it had 4,572. Six months later, the group had enrolled about 1,000 more children, but was still falling short of its goal. By June, it had 6,300, Chapman said. But by then it was too late.
Beginning the year with too few children did not create the surplus, she said.
Chapman said the organization kicked into high gear to try to spend the money. Chapman hired temporary workers to process applications, sent more than 2,000 letters to wait-listed families and had her staff work weekends. In October, the board voted to give child care providers a 3 percent raise and spent nearly $1 million on small grants to early learning programs.
Pinellas has not been penalized for returning the money; in fact, its allocation from the state this year is larger than last.
"We didn't not service children," said Julie Daniels, who chairs the coalition's board. By returning the money, the group succeeded, she said. "We got all our kids and were actually helping other counties."
Runyon and other advocates have a difficult time seeing the positive side.
By his estimate, the $2.4 million would have covered child care for about 500 children.
The state's records go back seven years and, in that time, Pinellas has never had to return unspent money. Once the coalition knew it had a surplus, it should have expanded the pool of eligible children, Runyon said.
Under federal guidelines, children up to the age of 12 can get subsidized care. But several years ago, the coalition lowered the age limit to 9, a decision that other groups also have made to focus on the "early" part of "early learning coalition."
"They cut a bunch of kids out of care by lowering the age," said Arthur O'Hara, who has been the executive director of the R'Club child care centers for 13 years. The organization has six preschools in Pinellas and one in Hillsborough and it lost hundreds of children ages 9 to 12 when the age of eligibility was lowered. The surplus could have been spent on older children, he said.
Chapman said this is a moot point. The coalition was working at top speed, she said, and it couldn't get young children into the program fast enough. Adding older children would have added to the bottleneck. If she put hundreds of additional children in the program at year's end, her budget the next year might not support them. "What do I do July 1st? Do I dis-enroll all those kids because now I've got too many kids in care?" she said.
For struggling parents, a few months of significantly cheaper child care would have made a difference, O'Hara argued, even if families had to be cut later. "There's $2 million that could have been spent on some kids," he said. "It just doesn't make sense."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.