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A business journal adds to the accolades that the Early Learning Coalition has received.
Published Jul. 1, 2010

First, it was honored by the public television station WEDU for garnering the most votes in the people's choice category among nonprofit agencies.

Now the organization that oversees early childhood education programs for the region has caught the attention of an independent judging panel. The Early Learning Coalition of Pasco and Hernando Counties recently was named Education Non-Profit of the Year in a contest sponsored byTampa Bay BusinessJournal.

"What do we do next year?" joked executive director Jim Farrelly. "We're thrilled. One of the reasons it's so special to us is they took a look at our business practices. The fact that those judges who are businesspeople made the decision is very meaningful to us."

The publication honored all 38 finalists among 275 nominees in seven categories during a June 24 ceremony at Embassy Suites Hotel at the University of South Florida. Awards are based on fiscal responsibility, management, mission, programming and impact with the community.

Earlier this year, the coalition received the Be More Humble: People's Choice Award at the fifth annual WEDU Be More Awards. The WEDU People's Choice poll allowed local residents to honor the nonprofit organization they thought most exemplified the positive spirit of the community.

The Pasco-Hernando coalition is one of 31 in Florida. The agencies oversee Florida's voluntary prekindergarten program for all 4-year-olds and subsidized child care programs for low- to moderate-income families by paying a part of the child care costs on a sliding fee schedule.

The Pasco-Hernando agency has come a long way in the past five years. Each county once had its own group, but the two agencies became one in 2005 after the state ordered smaller agencies to merge with other groups as a cost-cutting move.

The two years that followed were marked by board infighting and $300,000 surpluses that were spent at the last minute. Two directors quit, including one who was forced out. The agency became alienated from Pasco's power brokers after its board cut off money for a school district program that provided meals and medical care to preschoolers of the working poor. Pasco leaders responded by refusing to provide matching money for grants.

At one point, state officials who were brought in to smooth over differences described the board as "dysfunctional."

But Farrelly, a retired New Jersey educator who came on board in 2008, has been called a "blessing" by some staffers and quickly won the respect of key leaders such as Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano and state Sen. Mike Fasano.

Clean audits and awards followed. The agency also ended its contract with an Ocala firm and took most services in-house, a move officials said has saved taxpayers about $500,000.

The agency recently got federal approval to start a nonprofit foundation to aid in fundraising.

"That's what we'll do next," Farrelly said.