After 27 years, growing from an all-volunteer outreach to a fully funded program with a full-time director, the Franklin County Literacy program has shut its doors.
The reason for the closure, said both the director as well as the chair of the board overseeing the non-profit Franklin County Literacy Inc., was a shortfall in funding leading up to the start of the next fiscal year in October.
“It’s a sad day. I’m not happy about it,” said Maxine Creamer, who has served as the program’s full-time director since 2007, after starting in 1997 as a community outreach specialist.
Because of the closure, Literacy will not accept about $35,000 in funding from the county commission, which would have started flowing in on Oct. 1, at the start of the next fiscal year.
“We needed $13,000 to continue from July through September and we didn’t have the money,” she said.
“It takes more than $35,000 to do it,” said Liz Sisung, who chairs the Literacy board of directors. “There was a time we were getting $55,000 from the county.”
Creamer said that when she took the director’s position in 2007, the county’s funding was just under $70,000, fully covering the director’s salary, which started out about $25,000, as well as other costs.
“Nobody’s getting rich in education,” she said. “It takes tutors to do the work. There were other things coming out of these monies.”
Creamer said that over the years, she was able to cobble together various sources of funding, everything from monies from Florida A & M University to a partnership with the county schools on an adult education grant to a Dollar General grant. And using that money the program has helped hundreds of people to earn a high school diploma, a prerequisite for many jobs.
But this year, she said, with the winding up of Workforce Florida funding, it became clear there would not be enough to cover costs through the start of the next fiscal year.
“Liz and I went to every politician’s district. We made the (county) commissioners aware of it, and it was included in letters to the governor,” Creamer said. “We asked Workforce, and we asked the schools to offset salary costs. All those doors were just closed, and those doors began to close last year sometime.”
Members of the county commission pressed Kim Bodine, executive director of the CareerSource Gulf Coast Board July 16 about the funding cutback when she presented the budget for CareerSource Gulf Coast, commonly referred to by its previous name, Workforce.
She was asked by Commissioner William Massey whether she could find money for Literacy. “They’re fixing to have to shut the doors if we don’t get them something,” he said.
Bodine said she had been told just recently by Creamer about the closure. “We had a budget set aside and she was aware of that, but she said it had to do with more than funding going forward,” she said. “She said there was an issue with funding in the past.”
Commissioner Pinki Jackel asked her about the level of upcoming funding, and Bodine said Workforce was prepared to fund $31,000 for tutoring by Genie Nichols beginning Oct. 1.
“We worked with the Nest to set up a lab location in Eastpoint and of course we have a lab in Apalachicola at the (former Apalachicola High School) complex,” Bodine said. “Nick O’Grady, at the Franklin County School, has assured me that he’s going to offer the GED lab in Carrabelle, at a lab in the municipal complex and he has funds to have a tutor there.”
Jackel took issue with this. “You’re doing literacy but you went around Franklin County Literacy,” she said.
“No, we didn’t go around them,” Bodine replied. “We had a contract ready to execute with them for this next project. We’ve been contracting with Franklin County Literacy; we’ve been paying for a tutor all along. I don’t know where their funding shortfall was.”
In a telephone interview this week, Bodine said funds from Workforce’s largest funding stream, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) cannot be used for GED (General Educational Development) preparation for adults, unless the participants are also involved in a work experience or another WIA activity, such as additional classroom training to be a correctional officer
“Even with welfare transition there are only so many weeks people can be employed in workforce training,” Bodine said. “There are a limited number of weeks you can use for training,
“Just to fund someone to have GED preparation is not allowable for us,” she said. “You can see how that would limit our relationship.”
Bodine said that using millions of dollars in funding from Tropical Storm Debby recovery efforts, and monies set to flow in stemming from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s fisheries failure declaration, “we had to set up a very large scale work experience program to serve the people who have been displaced.”
Many of these people were paid a stipend during their training, but to qualify there were strict rules regarding eligibility.
Bodine said Workforce purchased the software program for GED prep as part of this effort. “Literacy didn’t have the money to do that,” she said.
Workforce also set up and paid for two computer labs, 10 in Apalachicola and 10 in Eastpoint, along with desks needed for that number of people, and tutors in both the part-time locations, and the fulltime one in Eastpoint.
“We paid through a contract with Literacy for those services to be supplied,” said Bodine. “We paid a small portion of overhead, but not very much.”
She said once this initial phase of Tropical Storm Debby monies ended in Dec. 2013, Workforce drew on other funds, from a pot designated for food stamp employment and training.
“For people who voluntarily come on to food stamps and are able-bodied adults, there are some dollars for short-term training if it will help them become employed,” Bodine said.
“We invested in another contract through Literacy, that picked up a couple months after the first contract ended,” she said. “That rolled on and we thought everything was going fine. In May we let Maxine know that we were building plans for the Commerce (fisheries failure) grant.”
The problem, Creamer said, was beginning in May, when Literacy began experiencing a shortfall, there were several students who still had not completed their GED prep.
“I couldn’t turn people away,” she said. “A lot of those people were all men who worked on the water, many were elderly, my age or older. The money’s just simply not there.”
Of the 11 students who remained, seven went on to earn their GED, two are in GED study and one is considered a low-level reader, Bodine said.
Creamer said her strategy of digging into Literacy’s reserves to fund needs was the last step in a seven-year process of making things work through a variety of means.
“Most funding over the year has come from the county commission,” she said. “And since 2008, it’s taken a toll on our main funding. I brought other funding in in different ways, and offset salaries through partnerships.
“You can only do so much, then you have to have cash coming through,” Creamer said. “We tried to bring Literacy to the forefront and give it a more public profile, creating a website. We stretched it another seven years.”
Sisung said that while Literacy had begun originally as an all-volunteer effort, “we found out over the years the most effective we have been was when we have reliable fulltime or reliable part-time help dealing with the people who want to get their GEDS.
“For a time we had volunteers, and as wonderful as they are, they’re not necessarily reliable,” said Sisung. “They’re only here for a couple of months, or can’t make this thing or that. We found in order to be effective we needed a bigger staff. We at one time had five staff members.
“We’ve gotten some very good funding in the past from the schools and that’s gone,” she said. “Maxine can’t get it. They’re just not willing to partner.”
Nick O'Grady, the school district’s director of curriculum and vocational education, said rules prevented him from turning over state grand funding for adult education to a separate non-profit organization.
He said Workforce will cover the testing costs for several of its program participants, as the school operates three GED sites. The one in Eastpoint will have three computer terminals where students can take their GED tests, as well as other vocational assessments, and that he expects there to be strong demand, including from other counties, for a chance to use these terminals.
“I feel like we got it covered,” said Bodine. “ If we don’t have a target group of customers, or we don’t have a grant that has specific funding in it, we’re not going to run a literacy program. We’re absolutely not in the literacy business, but we need those services for time to time.”
Creamer had a positive, but wait-and-see attitude, towards the future. “I hope that they can do it,” she said. “I will say this: Skill training is Workforce’s forte, not education. I think they’re going to be depend on the school to provide adult services.
“I hope they can step up to the plate,” Creamer said, noting that the school’s dropout rate has not improved substantially in recent years.
She said she has spent the last month getting records in order, and has donated many of her preparation materials, including books for teaching English as a second language, to the Apalachicola Municipal Library.
“They (potential participants) are going somewhere,” said Creamer. “I just hope the gaps are filled.”