education reform

Early-learning agency slammed

Early-learning agency slammed

By Lisa Fingeroot

The agency responsible for distributing state funds to state early-learning programs in the Big Bend says it has already rectified problems found in its policies and record keeping that added to a dismal report Tuesday.

An Auditor General’s report on the state’s Office of Early Learning found evidence of fraud elsewhere in the state, but not in Tallahassee. The damning report of the office’s statewide disbursement system led some lawmakers to say it might be better to scrap the existing structure and start over.

The Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend Region was one of 10 coalitions audited among the 31 statewide. The report focused on delivery and operation of services as well as the governing structure between the coalitions and the state’s Office of Early Learning (OEL), which oversees the group.

The Tuesday presentation to a Florida House subcommittee showed statewide problems related to everything from children’s immunization records and background checks on employees to cases of beneficiaries getting both unemployment assistance and day care benefits from the Early Learning program. Early Learning funds are designed to help children from birth to age 6.

The audit identified 16,589 people who received subsidized day care worth almost $40 million while also collecting unemployment benefits of about $54 million. The child-care subsidies are designed to allow parents to work. The finding resulted in the reassignment of OEL staff to an internal audit office.

No fraud was found in the Big Bend area however, and all the problems recorded during the audit could be attributed to simple “human error,” said Lauren Faison, chief executive officer of the Big Bend coalition, which serves Leon, Gadsden, Liberty, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison and Taylor counties. The local coalition serves 7,500 children and has a budget of about $23 million, which is a $2 million drop from the 2010-11 budget year.

The problems reported in the Big Bend coalition have been addressed and rectified through staff training plans, the reassignment of a staff member to serve as a quality-assurance officer, changes in purchasing procedures, training documents and tool kits for staff and providers, Faison said.

“We welcome accountability,” she added. “It gives us the opportunity to improve.”

The Florida Auditor General’s staff spent about 7,000 hours compiling the report, which was designed to give a representative sampling of coalitions around the state. The coalitions were chosen so that no one area of the state was targeted or that coalitions of a certain size were not targeted, said Sherrill Norman, a CPA and audit manager who presented the report Tuesday.

“We did not specifically look for bad actors, if you want to call them that,” Norman said, adding that she would suspect similar results from another sampling of coalitions.

The audit did not attempt to place a dollar amount on the findings or to comment on the quality of service being provided to Florida’s children, but Norman said “just looking at error rates in payments … (the amount lost to error, fraud or mismanagement) would be fairly substantial.”

Norman was questioned by lawmakers who wanted to know if the state Department of Education might be a better administrator of the programs or even if a third party should be contracted to oversee the VPK and early learning funds. Their concerns were met with a second presentation by the OEL’s new director, Mel Jurado who had a laundry list of reforms she planned to implement so the agency could become “good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

The subcommittee will now look at ways to strengthen the agency’s ability to mete out consequences for noncompliance and penalties for fraud because members want to stop what Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, called “the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars.”

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