The excuses are flowing for returning $2.4 million to the state that should have been used to help poor Pinellas families pay for child care. The Early Learning Coalition executive director's explanations range from too much work for her staff to handle to successful cost-cutting. That's no consolation for working families who needed the help and didn't get it even though the money was available. They deserve better, and public officials should demand it.
It's tough to argue that federal and state government should do more to help the working poor when local providers don't spend the public money they are given to meet the need in the community. But that's what has happened in Pinellas. The state gave Pinellas more than $27 million for subsidized child care a year ago so families could send their children to county licensed centers for a few dollars a day and the government would pay the rest. Now the Early Learning Coalition has given back $2.4 million because it couldn't spend it all in a year. There's something wrong with that picture, particularly when there is no dispute that the demand for help is there.
The Juvenile Welfare Board appropriately wanted some answers last week, and the responses from Early Learning Coalition executive director Janet Chapman were not satisfactory. Chapman acknowledged that the issue isn't having enough kids who qualify for subsidized child care. She said her staff couldn't process enough children, and she said the coalition was so successful at cutting costs that it created the surplus. Coalition board chairwoman Julie Daniels even spins the failure as a positive, suggesting the need was met in Pinellas and the returned money could help other counties. But the need wasn't met in Pinellas, and the money should have been spent where it was sent.
To be sure, it's not easy to precisely match the money with child care enrollments that fluctuate. But being $2.4 million off is outside the margin of error. Tampa Bay Times staff writer Anna Phillips reported that Pinellas had not returned money in years, and this was the largest amount any coalition in the state returned this year. This is a management issue, not a budgeting issue. The coalition stopped contracting out the work of determining family eligibility, and it should revisit that decision.
The Early Learning Coalition is a nonprofit that does important work preparing children to enter kindergarten and helping school-age children succeed academically. Its board members include lawyers, business officials, and representatives from the school district, the county health department and the Juvenile Welfare Board. Now the board should ensure that the coalition staff spends more of the money it gets for subsidized child care in the coming year or demand changes.
This year, Pinellas is getting more money from the state for subsidized child care than it did last year. To send millions back again when so many working families need the help would be an insult to those families and to all taxpayers who expect their public money to be wisely spent.