With only Smith advocating for funds, County Commission denies funding for Early Learning Coalition in 2025 fiscal year

CEO of nonprofit offers plea for continued support

Rep. Fiona McFarland. File image

On Sept. 26 2023, the Sarasota County commissioners approved grants to a number of human services organizations that they had omitted from consideration earlier in the month, at the recommendation of Commissioner Michael Moran.

The Sept. 26 votes came in response to community outrage over the fact that such nonprofits as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota & DeSoto Counties, the Child Protection Center, the Laurel Civic agency, the Safe Children Coalition, including its Schoolhouse Link program, the Loveland Center in Venice were not approved for funding support in the 2024 fiscal year, which began on Oct 1, 2023.

One of the Sept. 12, 2023 decisions sparked a Sept. 26 rebuff from state Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota. “You have an opportunity to vote for a one-for-one, state-matched funding for Sarasota’s Early Learning Coalition, for school readiness,” she told the commissioners.

The program is for children up to age 5, McFarland continued. Those are the youngsters for which no public school options exist, she pointed out. Parents, sitters and daycare are the option for those youngsters, McFarland added. Then she stressed, “Day care today is the second-highest household expense, behind housing …”

Moreover, McFarland told the board members, research has shown that only 40% of the children in kindergarten in Sarasota County “are actually ready to be in kindergarten.”

She also referenced research that shows how critical success in school is to the well being and financial stability of children as they grow into adults.

Further, McFarland said, state research had shown that for every dollar invested in school readiness, $7 is saved in later expenses for social services.

Ashley Brown, president and CEO of the Women’s Resource Center in Sarasota, pointed out that state data had shown that “40% of our community don’t make enough money to live here.” Women, especially, struggle, she said. About 70% of single-head-of-household situations in Sarasota County involve women, she continued.

“It costs more than $20 an hour to live here,” Brown told the board, “but 70% of Floridians earn [just] $20 an hour.”

She also stressed, “Access to quality child care is a huge expense and a huge barrier.”

A recent Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation report had pointed out that child care issues result in an estimated $5.3-billion loss to Florida’s economy each year, Brown added.

On Sept. 26, 2023, Commissioner Moran ended up being the only board member who refused to agree to the funding for the Early Learning Coalition. “We’re drifting way too close to socialism in those areas,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Moran makes a point during a Dec. 12, 2023 discussion. File image

In the past, Moran has contended that taxpayers should not be paying for child care.

In the wake of Moran’s leadership again last week in a discussion about the grants for the 2025 fiscal year, the Early Learning Coalition will not be getting any county financial support.

The organization was seeking $510,000. The county’s Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) had recommended that it receive the full amount.

The Coalition had requested the money to serve 1,750 clients, a summary in the board’s June 5 agenda packet showed.

In this fiscal year, the client count is 1,390, the document noted.

In the comments box at the bottom of that document, the HSAC members had written that they had ranked the program 15 of 51 “due to the program having a large budget, achieved all outcomes from the previous fiscal year, has unique program aspects, and the Sarasota County funds is a small percentage from the programs budget.”

This is the summary of the Early Learning Coalition’s funding request, along with its performance for the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years, that was provided in the June 4 agenda packet. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Sarasota News Leader was unable to reach Rep. McFarland this week to ask whether she had comments on the June 5 decision.

‘Not an eligible category’

As chair of the County Commission, Moran on June 4 passed out to his colleagues a document showing how he had adjusted the recommendations of the HSAC. The Early Learning Coalition was below the red line he used to denote the organizations that he believed should be funded.

Moran noted that all of those above the red line had received scores of 30 or above. Even though the score for the Coalition was 32.4, as shown on his chart, Moran had written at the end of the line, “Not an eligible category: ‘Food, Shelter, Safety, Mental/Health, Substance Abuse, Jail Diversion.’ ”

Those were the categories that the commissioners had established — once more, at Moran’s behest — in which a funding request had to fit to receive support.

This is a section of the handout that Commissioner Mike Moran had created, to show his decisions on the HSAC funding requests for the 2025 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the June 5 discussion, Commissioner Mark Smith tried to convince his colleagues grant the money to the Early Learning Coalition (ELC). He said that he believed it was eligible in the “Safety” category, similar to programs of the county’s Head Start organization, Children First, and the YMCA.

During remarks as part of the Open to the Public comment period at the start of the meeting, Janet Kahn, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition, had emphasized the importance of families’ access to affordable child care. “The county government’s support has been significant over the years,” she said. She and her staff recently had been talking to representatives of businesses and “all the other entities that have employees who are impacted by this,” she added.

Kahn said that she hoped that the commissioners would accept the recommendations of its Health and Human Services Advisory Council. (HSAC) “and follow the process that you yourselves have established.”

Noting that the board members that morning had recognized an employee who had served the county for 35 years, Kahn pointed out, “I would venture to say that many of your employees who [have been hired more recently] and have young children will not be here for 35 years if they cannot [afford child care].”

The funding from the county serves many families with members who are employed by the county, she continued, including first responders. She also noted that employees of Sarasota Memorial Hospital are among those who benefit from the grant money.

These are data regarding the Early Learning Coalition’s work, as shown on its website.

(This reporter saw Commissioner Neil Rainford get up from his seat at the dais and exit the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota just before Kahn began her comments. (However, commissioners have noted in the past that audio equipment in the County Administration Center enables them to hear the meeting even when they are not in the Chambers.)

At one point during the board’s discussion, after votes on adding back in other organizations’ funding requests that Moran had eliminated, Smith tried again. “I believe [the Early Learning Coalition] is a vital program that’s very successful.

He asked his colleagues to allow the CEO, Kahn, to address them again.

When Moran asked for the consensus on Smith’s request, no one spoke. Then, with a chuckle, Moran said, “I have a request for the bathroom.”
The commissioners took a break that lasted approximately 10 minutes.

When they returned, Moran moved on to discussion of another organization that had been brought up, which he had omitted from his list.

Afterward, Smith was able to get Kahn back at the podium.

“I strongly believe that having appropriate access to child care is a safety issue for families,” she told the commissioners. The safety of their children is one of families’ top priorities, Kahn added. “It’s very clear from the definition that child care [meets the “Safety” criteria for funding],” she continued.

If the commissioners felt otherwise, she added, then they should not fund the other organizations in the “Safety” category.

Following her remarks, Smith again said that he was seeking his fellow commissioners’ support for the Early Learning Coalition application.

“I see no one on the board,” Moran responded, referring to the electronic system the commissioners use to indicate to the chair that they wish to speak.

Then, Moran moved on to the next topic.

1 thought on “With only Smith advocating for funds, County Commission denies funding for Early Learning Coalition in 2025 fiscal year”

  1. Congratulations to Rep MacFarland for advocating so strongly for child care. Mike Moran should be castigated, instead of followed, by three of the other board members Only Smith, who dissented, should be commended.
    I was a volunteer member of HSAC for 6 years. We always did a careful, professional job of ranking the organizations. For Moran to disregard these recommendations and make his own is outrageous.
    He will be termed out as commissioner–I suggest everyone vote against him in his bid to become Receiver of Taxes for the County.


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