GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A sweeping new state audit has found widespread problems with a more than $1 billion program responsible for helping the state’s pre-school children.

State legislators on Tuesday were briefed with a lengthy audit of Florida’s Office of Early Learning, which is responsible for administering both the state’s free prekindergarten program for four year olds and school readiness programs for children up to age 5.

One key finding is that nearly 16,600 people received nearly $40 million worth of state-subsidized help with child care while at the same time they may have collected more than $54 million worth of jobless benefits. A handful of individuals are now under investigation for possible fraud. Auditors also found an example where child care payments were paid to one family home that had reported taking care of two children for eight months straight, including holidays.

Auditors additionally found that some local coalitions responsible for helping run the program failed to conduct background screenings and could not document if instructors were qualified. They also reported finding that program money was spent on cellphone bills for one coalition executive director as well a rug and pest control services for one office.

“It’s nothing short of a colossal failure and it’s disturbing,” said Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami after hearing about the audit.

Mel Jurado, who has been the director of the office since September, called the new audit valuable and said her office was responding to the numerous audit findings. She also said her office is setting up a fraud unit to investigate possible problems.

Jurado also said seven employees who were in the office are no longer working there, although she said she could not say more about the circumstances surrounding their departure.

Jurado’s office also said that they were still reviewing the list of nearly 16,600 people, but that it wasn’t clear if the child care payments and unemployment payments happened in the same month. A total of 14 individuals were being investigated for fraud right now, but the state was also reviewing payments made to more than 800 individuals who are still currently enrolled in the child care program.

Florida has two main programs aimed at helping pre-school children. More than 236,000 are enrolled in child care programs that the state subsidizes in order to help low-income families work. Another 164,000 four year olds attend pre-kindergarten classes that are paid by the state of Florida. Voters approved the state’s prekindergarten program back in 2002.

The state’s early learning programs are carried out by 31 coalitions around the state, which then make payments to child care providers and pre-kindergarten schools.

Auditors did not look at all 31 coalitions, but instead they focused on just 10 coalitions, including those in Escambia County, the Big Bend region around Tallahassee, Marion County, Miami-Dade County, Monroe County, Orange County, Palm Beach County, Polk County as well as those in Southwest Florida and in the Tampa Bay region.

But they found problems at most of them. For example auditors discovered the Big Bend Early Learning Coalition spent money on expenses that auditors did not think were reasonable including more than $2,800 for a decorative green-metal tree-shaped bookshelf. Several coalitions did not have complete records showing if pre-kindergarten instructors had criminal background checks. Auditors found that in Orange County a lead pre-kindergarten instructor had been charged with neglect of a child. After auditors started raising questions, the instructor left the private provider.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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