As they were nearing a deal on the state budget on June 16 in a secret, late-night session, Florida legislators found a way to spend $301 million in public dollars while also slashing millions from the budget. That’s when the state’s Boys and Girls Club saw their budget cut by $5 million while $2 million was diverted to Bradenton’s IMG Academy, a private, for-profits sports academy that caters to rich children who play golf, tennis and baseball, for $70,000 a year in tuition. (Gov. Scott sustained the cut to the Boys and Girls Club but vetoed the IMG appropriation.)
It’s also when the state’s $10 million Adults with Disabilities program was eliminated, and with it a $535,000 grant that had paid for a pair of programs under that umbrella in Flagler County, serving 85 people with profound disabilities, five days a week, and employing 11. Come Wednesday, those two programs—Step Up Industries and Community Inclusion—may be gone.
“If we don’t have a solution on June 30,” Flagler Technical Institute Director Kevin McCarthy said, “then on July 1, I have to contact all of my staff, don’t come in to work, and tell all the clients do not come to school.” FTI runs the two programs and has done so for decades.
The Flagler County School Board is meeting in special session Tuesday in part to consider what to do about the two programs, and how to keep the doors open. The board has some options, but they are limited and uncertain.
The special meeting is scheduled after a 9 a.m. meeting scheduled to close out the fiscal year. The special meeting is set so the board can, for the first time, get a clear, precise presentation from Finance Director Tom Tant on the new budget, which the Legislature just passed, and what it means for the school district, whose budget begins July 1. (Most other local governments’ budgets start Sept. 1.)
Board members in Flagler were taken by surprise last week when they realized how the $10 million for adults with disabilities was slashed out of the budget—out of public view, and without giving constituents much chance to make their case to preserve the dollars. The House wanted to continue the program at its current funding. The Senate did not, and won out when the two sides went into “conference” behind closed doors.
“We know that apparently Sen. Hutson’s office is supposed to be working on the issue to find out where the funding will now flow from,” Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board, “so we’re hopeful that once the dust settle we’ll figure out where this funding will come from at the state level. If, and it’s a big if, there’s not a mechanism for funding to continue servicing our adults with disabilities, which would be exceptionally disappointing, I believe we would reach pout to our elected partners at the county level and the city level and request that they work with us in trying to maintain programming for our most vulnerable adults. The complete elimination of the program in my opinion should not be an option.”
One of the option is to have pay for the program, but Conklin doesn’t consider that affordable for the individuals. “If we’re not going to provide the service, someone has to provide the service for these individuals,” she said.
Gov. Rick Scott claims he is increasing money for adults with disabilities. In a way, he did: an extra $40 million was added to the budget for adults with disabilities, “but it is specifically for a program that nobody really knows anything about,” McCarthy says. “It’s a scholarship program that would enable some individuals with disabilities to go to job training programs. Which I think is definitely needed, but it doesn’t impact the clients who we serve at Step-Up, because they are more profoundly disabled, they are not capable of being what we call competitive work.”
But that’s the money the district is looking to tap into, Superintendent Jacob Oliva says. “We want to keep the center open and operate under good faith that we’ll be able to find a funding stream to replace the money that we lost,” Oliva said Monday afternoon. “We’re going through the process of applying for it and seeing if we qualify for that funding and find a different funding stream.”
“It’s not guaranteed,” Oliva cautioned. “If we don’t get that, we don’t have a program.”
In the meantime, McCarthy and Oliva will be asking the school board to approve emergency funding, out of the district’s reserves, to keep those doors open—on the condition that money can be secured, and fully reimbursed once it is. “If we’re unable to do that in the meantime will have to bring that back to them in the next couple of months to make a decision about the program,” Oliva said.
The trouble with the new money, Oliva said, is that it’s fixated on “outcomes.” Legislators want proof that the money spent on adults with disabilities will lead those adults into the workforce after a set number of years. If the programs don’t do so, they won’t be funded. But not every individual with disabilities can end up in the workforce, McCarthy says.
The Step-up program is a “sheltered workshop.” Individuals earn below minimum wage but they are paid while there, learning vocational skills and providing services to local industries, such as electronic components for American Radionics. FTI clients pre-assemble some work to speed up operations at American Radionics’ factory. The individuals learn vocational skills and quality of life skills. “While they may not be entering the workforce, they are in essence working,” McCarthy says. “They are in a setting with a ratio of 1-to-10, with a staff member who’s trained, certified and evaluated to provide a quality of life that’s significantly better than to be institutionalized or stuck at home without supervision. It also enables their parents or caregivers to be in the workforce.”
In that sense, FTI Assistant Director Catherine Monsanto says, “they get to contribute to the community and workforce.”
“Traditionally,” McCarthy says, “our clients in our program, 20, 30, 40 years ago would have been staying in an institution potentially, or currently would be in a group home watching TV all day. To me that’s not a quality of life I’m comfortable with.”
The second program the $535,000 paid for is called is Community Inclusion, for clients who have even more profound disabilities. They may not have the skills to work or assemble products. It’s a continual life skills program. They take trips around the community, for example, to put together a grocery list, get on the bus, go to a grocery store, then collectively make their lunch. The individuals have been in special education programs since childhood. They’ve had to be retaught certain skills, literacy among them, continuously. About 20 of the 85 individuals are in Community Inclusion. The rest are in Step Up. Some 50 people are on the waiting list.
“Most of the clients we serve, that work site is their work,” Oliva said, explaining that “outcomes” as the Legislature defines them don’t always apply in certain settings.
A part of the $535,000 also underwrites an FTI partnership of long date with Daytona Beach’s Stewart-Marchmann Act, providing services to individuals with metal health and addiction issues. Stewart-Marchmann may be taking over that program entirely. “There’s a solution for that today,” McCarthy said. “There’s not a solution today for adults with cognitive or developmental disabilities, so that’s what we’re discussing with the board Tuesday.”
He added, referring to the adults with disabilities programs: “This isn’t a fly-by –night operation that’s just taking taxpayer dollars for the fun of it. This provides a valuable service to the families that they serve.