TALLAHASSEE — Republican leaders of the Florida Senate want to drastically change how they dole out funding for after-school programs that provide homework help, mentoring and gang prevention services to thousands of children, often living in Florida's most impoverished and vulnerable neighborhoods.
Senators want to increase funding, provide it to more organizations and ensure the dollars are spent on programs proven to bolster children's academic performance.
But without any notice about the proposed change, administrators of non-profits that rely year after year on the designated state funding said they feel blindsided and rattled with uncertainty and questions.
"It came out of nowhere," said Daniel Lyons, executive director for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. "It just caught us off guard with how it all developed… It felt like a sucker-punch."
In the Senate's budget plan for 2016-17, gone are the designated line-items that have been in place for years — or specifically two decades, in the case of the Boys & Girls Clubs and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
In its place is a pot of $30 million — larger than this year's cumulative funding but still short of what it was two years ago — and a general outline for a competitive grant process that would let both traditional and new organizations have a shot at state dollars so long as they prove their worth to a yet-unestablished, state-appointed board.
The proposal was crafted behind closed doors by Senate leadership, without input from at least some of the program providers it would affect most. Those that spoke with the Times/Herald — and some members of the Senate education budget committee — said they were caught by surprise when it was unveiled during budget presentations in late January.
Senate Republican leaders are adamant: They're not cutting funding; they're giving more, while offering a more fair process that ensures dollars are allocated wisely.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville — the Senate's education budget chairman — said deciding which aftercare programs are funded by individual line-items each year is "so much a function of lobbying."
"It was increasingly difficult to get objective, return-on-investment analysis," he said, noting his proposed grant program would be similar to arts and museum funding.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Appropriations Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, support the idea.
"There is no intention of trying to adversely impact programs that are actually working," Lee said.
But non-profit administrators said the organizations already prove themselves each year in order to keep legislative funding. In particular, Lyons said the money to Boys & Girls Clubs is actually a reimbursement, so clubs justify every expense to the state all year.
"It's not that we've been given a gift; we've been given responsibility and accountability," he said.
Both Republican Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget and the House's keep the traditional line-item funding process. Scott proposes at least $14.5 million to the affected programs, while the House offers to fund them with about $20 million.
The Senate's competitive grant process is a tough sell in the House, at least for this year.
House education budget Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said Gaetz's idea "merits conversation but I'm certainly not inclined to drastically reform the manner in which we appropriate to these mentoring programs that have been around for a long time in our budget process."
"I'm certainly not going to, from one session to the next, knock that out without having a conversation and a debate," he said.
The Senate plan offers broad guidelines for what non-profit organizations would be eligible to seek funding. An "Aftercare and Mentoring Award Committee" — comprised of appointees of the governor, House speaker, Senate president, and agency heads from the departments of Education and Children and Family Services — would decide which organizations get money and how much.
Program administrators said it's "aggressive thinking" for lawmakers to believe the new system could be set up before the new budget year starts July 1. (Gaetz said he sees "no particular problem.") They also question whether new organizations seeking state dollars will be scrutinized to demonstrate proven outcomes as heavily as they have been.
"They've tested us for years and years, and we provide that independent research," said Lydia Muniz, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami.
Gaetz said program administrators "shouldn't be fearful" about his proposal.
"If you have a valuable program and you can show how you're affecting children's lives, how you're affecting their performance, you shouldn't be afraid," he said. "You should be overjoyed that now you'll have a chance to compete for even more money."
To fund it at $30 million, senators propose to add several million dollars in new funding and then combine two sources of money currently separate in the budget:
More than $13 million in aftercare aid within the education budget that generally funds homework assistance,
And more than $9 million from the Department of Juvenile Justice that helps children — who often have relatives who've been arrested — stay out of trouble.
Non-profit administrators and some Democratic lawmakers have two primary concerns with this: That the money is being combined in the first place, and that a competitive grant could open the floodgates to a slew of new providers, potentially diluting the effectiveness of the dollars for any singular organization.
"It's scary to think that those numbers might not be there," said Chris Letsos, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay.
"It just befuddles those of us who are working hard to serve kids in the community," agreed Brian Quail, of the Broward County Boys & Girls Clubs. "That's what this funding means to us: Keeping kids safe."
Among the half-dozen or so groups receiving aftercare funding, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs gets money annually through both departments. The state dollars are then dispersed to regional and local affiliates. Their state organizations, respectively, got about $3.7 million and $5.5 million total this year.
The other juvenile justice program affected by the funding shift is the Tampa-based University Area Community Development Corp.'s Prodigy project for at-risk youth, which received $4.6 million this year. Other after-school programs that got the most funding through the education budget line-items are Miami-based Take Stock In Children ($6.1 million this year) and Best Buddies ($1 million).
Program providers caution against combining the dollars for education and for juvenile justice, because they serve different purposes.
"It's like trying to make an apple a banana in a sense," said Nita Smith, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast in Pinellas County.
Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the dollars also help different demographics of children and that, under the proposed change, "there's the possibility one could end up with less than needed to carry out its mission when, in fact, they're both important."
Gaetz said the net impact makes the dollars intertwined and both missions would have more financial backing under his proposal.
Gardiner's spokeswoman Katie Betta told the Times/Herald that Gardiner supports establishing the grant program, and to that end, he made the call to combine the funding when Senate leaders decided on department allocations earlier this year. The process is done behind closed doors.
Program providers are also wary, because their line-item funding was already slashed in this year's budget.
From 2014 to 2015, the Legislature cut aftercare allocations for Teen Trendsetters and YMCA State Alliance by more than 70 percent. Big Brothers Big Sisters and the state Boys & Girls Clubs each lost about 50 percent of their total funding.
Because of that, the groups already had to make adjustments this year, which administrators said included slimming down staff and activities, ultimately serving several thousand fewer children statewide.
"That really shook us up last year," said Stephen Koch, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay. "We're a little gun-shy… Change is part of the norm, but is it really necessary change?"
Contact Kristen M. Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @ByKristenMClark.