Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA
Belt-tightening provided the final reason to close a city-subsidized learning center, but it was a series of behind-the-scenes issues and the urging of several political powerhouses -- including its biggest benefactor -- that sealed the decision.
Beyond questions raised during the past year by city auditors about hiring and other practices by administrators at the Don Brewer Early Learning Center, there were philosophical differences in the center's direction.
The center was intended to be a place for early learning, research and development -- a place where child-care providers throughout the city could go to get innovative ideas to help the children in their care. It was intended to be a place where new curriculum could be tested in the most ideal of situations.
It was never intended to be primarily a child-care center, because an $850,000 city subsidy would make it a costly initiative to educate fewer than 100 children and practically impossible to replicate in private or non-profit centers.
That's according to Howard Korman, who headed the Jacksonville Children's Commission at the time of the center's creation during Mayor John Delaney's administration. Korman is now chairman of the Jacksonville Early Learning Partnership, of which the Brewer Center is a member.
After at least a year of questions by auditors and attempts to add more oversight to the board, Korman said he asked Toni Crawford, who came up with the idea for the center and donated money to it, if her heart was still in it.
She said it wasn't, he said. Crawford declined to talk about specifics of the Brewer Center or why it closed.
But a couple of weeks ago, Crawford and Korman met with Peyton to tell him they wanted the city to close the center.
The news was devastating to parents of the children attending the center. It was equally heartbreaking for the center's director, Frances Gupton.
Parent Cheryl Taylor, who has organized the other parents into pushing the city to keeping the center open, said the city handled the announcement poorly and should have asked for input from families before making the decision.
MEANT TO BE A MODEL
About six years ago, Crawford came up with an idea to set up a model for best practices in early learning, Korman said.
Korman helped negotiate a deal between the city and Crawford, who along with her husband wanted to give a $1 million endowment to the city for the center to be named after Don Brewer, a former city councilman and an education proponent.
An autonomous board would run the center. It was chaired by Crawford and consisted of two other members of the Don Brewer Foundation board and three members of the Jacksonville Children's Commission board.
But Korman and city officials acknowledged that the organization of the Brewer Center board wasn't well-defined, with little oversight from city officials.
"In hindsight, this configuration might not ever have allowed the kind of success we had hoped for," said Susie Wiles, Peyton's spokeswoman.
The center, which opened in June 2005, was run by former school principal Frances Gupton. It catered mostly to lower-income children, with about 25 percent of the students from anywhere in the city. The center's capacity was for 98 children, but on Friday it had 81 students, with 80 percent from families with incomes below the poverty level, Gupton said.
While parent fees, state vouchers and federal food money helped run some of the day-to-day operations, the city contributed the bulk of the almost $1.3 million budget. Most of the money paid personnel costs.
Teachers at the Brewer Center were required to have college degrees, but they also were paid more. Most of the teachers earned about $40,000 a year; assistants were paid about $28,000.
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