Last spring the Flagler County School Board, not to mention about 100 families whose adults with disabilities were cared for by the district, were stunned when the Florida Legislature eliminated half a million dollars for the program. It was part of a larger budget cut that affected similar programs across the state.
Many districts eliminated their Adults with Disabilities programs as a result. The Flagler school board didn’t go that far. In a grim meeting in September, it cut the program in half, eliminating one of its chief components such as an inclusion program that took disabled individuals through the community to develop social skills and learn basic everyday coping mechanisms. It also charged clients money to attend. Those who couldn’t afford the fee had to stay home, requiring their families to rearrange their lives to care for them.
On Monday, after district officials spent months lobbying legislators, school officials found out that the full $545,000 appropriation they’d lost last year was restored. It will enable the district to again double enrollment in the Adults with Disabilities’ Step Up program starting July 1. It’ll be double the new start for the Step Up program, which will also be moving from its current location near the Corporate One building on Palm Coast Parkway to a facility adjacent to the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School, near the administrative offices of the Flagler Technical Institute—the district’s adult education division that runs the Adults with Disabilities program.
The restoration was the work of FTI Director Kevin McCarthy, Superintendent Jacob Oliva, Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board and has long been the board’s liaison to the legislature, as well as Rep. Paul Renner and Sen. Travis Hutson, who represent Flagler in Tallahassee. The legislators were not very successful in securing dollars for other Flagler governments, and one appropriation they secured, for Palm Coast, was vetoed. But they scored big points with families and the district in restoring the Adults with Disabilities dollars.
“I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the parents and community members who stepped forward to make phone calls, to write letters and to share stories on how they were impacted” by the program, Conklin said. “We have some community members that had to stay home with their adult children with disabilities, some who couldn’t afford continued programming, and the whole situation was really heartbreaking. A tremendous amount of thanks goes to Rep. Renner who really committee to working this issue in the house, and Sen Hutson worked hard to right this wrong.”
But there is a caveat.
“This is one year,” McCarthy said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. This will get us through the upcoming fiscal year.” Beyond that the district must once again work with partnerships to ensure that the program remains funded. The Legislature may not be reliable past 2016. “It’s not safe to put all our eggs in one basket anymore,” McCarthy said.
The way it worked this year was unorthodox. Rather than sit back and wait for the Legislature to restore the full, statewide appropriation for Adults with Disabilities that it eliminated last spring, Renner and Hutson advised Flagler officials to file for a special funding request, McCarthy said. They did so. Then they had to shepherd the request through various committees. They discovered that the Senate a few weeks ago had included the funding request in its budget. The request survived committee hurdles. The House meanwhile was, in fact, recommending a full $9 million restoration of the program. That did not survive. In the end, Flagler’s request made it through as part of several like it, Conklin said. But it still wasn’t over until Monday, when the governor released his veto list.
McCarthy scoured the list several times after getting it Monday. Flagler’s Adults with Disabilities request wasn’t there. Which meant it had survived.
“This was a very arduous process. I don’t want to go through that again, so we need to come up with a long-term solution,” McCarthy said, noting how 10 years ago the same program had $1.9 million. Conklin still hopes that the larger funding mechanism in place previously will be restored in the 2017 session.
Meanwhile she said, “this has given us an opportunity to redesign the program, and so I’d say we’ll be moving full steam ahead to provide programming at the same level as we did in the past. However it may look somewhat different. But I’m extremely grateful for the support of my colleagues on the school board. Many other districts around the state closed their Adults with Disabilities program. And while we had to dramatically and drastically reduce the hours and services provided, we hung in there in the hopes of restoring funding.”