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Published Feb. 4, 2008

Determined not to end the fiscal year with another large surplus, members of a coalition that oversees early childhood programs for Hernando and Pasco counties agreed Thursday to put $68,000 toward reducing waiting lists.

The Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition voted unanimously to shift the money, which had been allocated toward various line items in the budget, to cut the 912-child list in both counties.

The list had been frozen last year as members wanted to be cautious after state budget shortfalls. But cash-strapped child care providers complained late in the year that they had slots that were not being filled.

The money will help move 265 children off Pasco's list and about 30 per month in Hernando, officials said.

The slots are dedicated to the working poor, whose care is subsidized by the state. Parents also contribute on a sliding scale based on income.

Children in protective custody or whose parents are in welfare-to-work programs are automatically given spots.

The vote came after two years of $300,000 surpluses that were distributed at the end of those years as minigrants.

In 2006, the surplus caused friction among some board members who were angry over a decision to cut roughly that same amount of money to the Pasco County School District, which provided a prekindergarten program that offered food and medical care to needy kids.

Reducing the waiting list was among the top goals of new executive director James Farrelly, who attended his first meeting Thursday and gave a "state of the coalition" speech.

"We want to make 100 percent use of available funds," he said. "We want to support our families and our providers."

In other business, the board voted to spend $24,000 on scholarships for child care employees to earn additional certification. The money will enable 60 workers to attend the program, which costs $400 per person.

The scholarships will be welcome for low-wage child care workers, said board member Toni Watkins, who represents faith-based centers.

"You make $7 or $8 an hour if you're lucky," she said. "You can't afford $400 for a class."

The lone no vote came from Jim Cook, who said he thought the money would be better used by removing more children from the waiting list.

"I'm concerned about the mom who's knocking on my door," he said.

But other board members quickly responded that reducing wait lists must be balanced with raising standards of care. Children are better off with no care than with poor care, they said.

A bad child care center, especially when it comes to children too young to communicate, "is like mini concentration camp," said Linda Foy, CEO of Childhood Development Services.

"How can you take your baby to a place where someone is going to tell them to shut up or leave them in a crib crying?"

Lisa Buie can be reached at or (813) 909-4604.