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Pasco schools to shrink child care program

Low enrollment numbers, depleted budgets prompt job cuts, site closures.

Pasco County families needing before- and after-school care for their children could have fewer options when the new academic year begins Aug. 24.

Citing limited demand and tight finances, school district officials have announced plans to shut down 11 sites for its PLACE program. Fifty-eight positions would be eliminated with the move, which comes to the School Board for a vote on Tuesday.

“COVID has really hurt PLACE financially,” board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin said. “Everything had to change.”

The program runs as a stand-alone entity within the school district, and must operate self-sufficiently. Its budget was first hit in March, when it stopped offering services as the coronavirus shuttered campuses, yet made the decision to continue paying all its staff.

As some businesses began calling their employees back to work, the district decided to reopen PLACE in June. Officials anticipated having 2,300 children in 20 sites.

Those numbers never materialized, though, with only 800 students enrolling. Meanwhile, the cost of running the program increased, assistant superintendent Betsy Kuhn said, because of newly implemented procedures, including increased use of space for social distancing and added steps for cleaning and sanitizing.

A temporary fee increase did not make up the difference.

With classes set to resume in August, the district had expected PLACE to grow again. The board approved a permanent fee hike, to $70 per week up from $53, to maintain the smaller groups and continue the safety measures.

But the registration figures remained low. The program, which in a regular year serves about 4,500 children, drew fewer than 2,000 applications.

“We had some programs with only 10 to 20 kids enrolled,” Kuhn said.

That low level of participation is not affordable, she said. So cuts became necessary.

“As much as we don’t want to do it, we’re collapsing 11 programs and providing shuttle service to other (schools),” Kuhn said.

The sites that no longer would have PLACE offered are Anclote, Fox Hollow, Chester Taylor, San Antonio, Cypress, Deer Park, Marlowe, Watergrass, Pine View, Sand Pine and Seven Oaks elementary schools. Students at those schools would travel to nearby campuses for the program.

Fifty-eight of the program’s approximately 300 jobs will be eliminated.

Additionally, the district lost a grant that paid for free after-school tutoring and enrichment lessons at Gulf Highlands Elementary, and Hudson, Stewart and Gulf middle schools. Those programs also will be closed.

Unlike with PLACE, the students using these services will not have the option of transferring to a different site.

Beaudoin expressed disappointment with planned reductions, but said she didn’t see an easy fix at this point.

“I just hope we can stay open,” she said. “It’s been such a help to our families.”

The School Board is scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at its Land O’Lakes headquarters.