State budget restores funding to Flagler’s Adults With Disabilities program

By Shaun Ryan Originally posted on The Daytona Beach News-Journal

PALM COAST — This has been a tough year for dozens of disabled adults in Flagler County.

A program that offered them vocational training, social interaction and a paycheck came to a sudden halt in July when state funding was cut.

But its suspension could soon prove to be temporary. The funding has been restored in the Legislature’s 2016-17 budget.

“We’re grateful that the Legislature saw the value in our program,” said School Board Chairwoman Colleen Conklin, adding that she would like to see the funding restored across the state. Flagler is one of only a handful of districts in line to receive funds in the coming year.

While funding had previously come in the form of a grant through the Florida Education Finance Program, the source of this money is a line item in the state budget. It will have to be requested each year.

If the line item survives the governor’s veto pen, the Flagler County Adults With Disabilities program will receive $535,892. This represents a full restoration of funding to the level it was in fiscal 2014-15.

School district officials have been communicating with Gov. Rick Scott’s office and he has expressed support for the program, so there’s reason to believe he may keep it in the budget.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Kevin McCarthy, director of Flagler Technical Institute, the school through which the district runs the program.

The school district got things going with a budget request through state Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

That the local program made it to the final budget is largely due to their efforts.

Conklin expressed “a tremendous amount of gratitude and thanks to Rep. Renner for working so hard to help shepherd this through the Legislature along with Sen. Hutson.”

She also credited the work of Superintendent Jacob Oliva, Adults With Disabilities director Jeanne Elliott, McCarthy and concerned citizen Tom Lutz, who all contributed toward keeping the issue alive.

“And our families, our parents and our students are to be tremendously commended,” Conklin added.

She called the families “true advocates.” They took to the phones, visited Tallahassee and wrote letters to support their cause.

“We’ve been very, very, very vocal,” said McCarthy. “We’re persistent. And the families are persistent.”

Last year, the program consisted of two components: Step-Up Industries, where clients were paid sub-minimum wage to perform pre-assembly work for local manufacturers, and Community Inclusion, which got lower-functioning clients involved in the community through field trips and shopping for groceries.

Since payment of sub-minimum wage requires a special certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor that’s not available to governmental bodies, the district partnered with Stewart-Marchman Act Behavioral Healthcare in Volusia County to piggyback on its certificate.

But the loss of funding resulted in the layoff of eight district employees, four of whom worked with the Stewart-Marchman Act Enrichment Program. That triggered a suspension of the partnership and, thus, an end to paychecks for Step-Up clients.

Also, the elimination of funds put an end to Community Inclusion clients’ trips because there was no more money for buses.

The School Board did what it could to salvage the program. Clients were moved into a program with an educational emphasis. Medicaid waivers — essentially a prescription — provided some funding, up to a maximum of $466 per month. Clients were also asked to pay a fee.

Participation fell by 50 percent to just 50 clients.

While much reduced, Flagler County’s program survived where others in the state did not.

The restoration of funding could mean rehiring employees and re-establishing a relationship with Stewart-Marchman Act.

There will be some changes, however.

The Adults With Disabilities program is set to be moved into a facility at the west end of Flagler Palm Coast High School. It’s much larger than the portable at 1 Corporate Drive currently being used. McCarthy hopes to expand clients’ gardening opportunities there and provide job shadowing, which will require hiring a job coach.

McCarthy also wants to develop partnerships to help diversify the program’s funding sources. This will better protect the program should there be a repeat of last July’s funding cut.

While district officials are encouraged by developments in the Legislature, they will be watching closely to see if the governor signs off on the funding.

“It’s not a done deal, yet,” said McCarthy.