TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A malfunction by yet another state computer system has threatened to sink day care centers throughout Florida that are barely managing to survive the COVID-19 crisis.

The Florida Department of Education overpaid these child care centers. Now it wants that money back.

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on child care centers. Enrollment is down. Expenses are up. Many centers are already operating by the skin of their teeth and fear in light of state demands, they may have to close their doors for good.

Didn’t see it coming

From the hanging stuffed animals to the real-life critters in every corner, it’s clear that Bay Vista Learning Center in Clearwater has been a labor of love for 64-year-old Diane and 76-year-old James Byers.

“It was completely destroyed when we found it,” Mr. Byers, a co-owner of the facility, said. “We borrowed and used all of our own money.”

His wife Diane has been in education for 39 years.

“I watch every penny that the day care has very closely,” said Mrs. Byers.

The center opened its doors in May of 2001. They survived Sept. 11, the 2008 financial crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

Now it faces another threat, but this one comes from the state.

“I can budget if I see it coming,” Mrs. Byers said.

“You didn’t see it coming?” Investigative Reproter Mahsa Saeidi asked.

“No, not at all,” Mrs. Byers replied.

Florida pays Bay Vista thousands to care for low-income and Voluntary Prekindergarten children.

Two years ago, the Florida Department of Education installed a malfunctioning software system. According to records, it overpaid Bay Vista $15,539.

Our investigation found the Byers are just one of 192 facilities in Pinellas County that the state overpaid.

They just got a letter demanding repayment.

“The letter said that the money that they give us each month, they would start to take money from that money,” said Mrs. Byers.

The Byers say they’re already running on the thinnest of margins.

“We need time and we need an explanation,” they said.

‘We really don’t have a plan B’

Parents we spoke with are panicked too. They say they don’t know what they’ll do if the center shuts down.

Vicki Santiago (Mahsa Saeidi/WFLA photo)

“We really don’t have a plan B right now,” said Eric Clark, a father of two kids.

Vicki Santiago has one child currently enrolled at Bay Vista. She’s also a teacher at the facility.

“This has been like the best school that my kids have ever gone to,” Mrs. Santiago said.

“With both my husband and I working, we don’t have the opportunity to stay home,” mom Amanda Gunter added.

State software glitches

The Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County is a nonprofit organization that distributes state education dollars to child care centers like Bay Vista. Lindsay Carson is the chief executive officer.

“I have been working in education since 2000,” said Mrs. Carson. “I was a kindergarten teacher, I’ve always been an early learning person.”

Close to a dozen nonprofits told 8 On Your Side they were forced to estimate payments to centers in 2018 after the new software system installed by the DOE failed to work as advertised.

“When did you realize there was a problem with the state’s website?” 8 On Your Side asked.

“We realized there was an issue as soon as it was deployed,” said Mrs. Carson.

The glitches persisted for months. Once the reimbursement function of Florida’s portal was fixed, Early Learning Coalitions had to backtrack, analyze countless data and determine if centers had been underpaid or overpaid.

“We’ve been really committed to a very, very intensive process to make sure that our providers get every dime they’ve earned,” said Mrs. Carson.

“There was only so much control we had at the local level,” she added. “But we worked closely with the folks in Tallahassee to get things resolved.”

How much money is owed?

Florida’s Department of Education doesn’t know how many child care centers it overpaid yet. A DOE spokeswoman says they’re waiting for coalitions to finalize their reconciliation workbooks.

“We thought at first, it was just us,” said Mr. Byers.

Our investigation learned Florida is due and trying to collect $1.9 million from centers in Pinellas County alone. In Hillsborough, it’s $4,027,164. In Pasco/Hernando, more than $1 million.

Here’s how much was overpaid in the other Tampa Bay area counties:

  • Polk County $467,000
  • Sarasota County: $330,000
  • Highlands County: $310,000
  • Citrus County: $94,000
  • Hardee County: $72,000
  • Manatee County: Less than $30,000

“They said they could take it in three payments,” Mr. Byers said. “We probably wouldn’t have made payroll this month if they had taken that $4,000.”

8 On Your Side asked the Florida Department of Education about the repayment timeline. A spokeswoman says, when COVID-19 hit in March, they delayed repayment.

Now, they say they’ve reminded coalitions that “flexibility and compassion should drive…negotiations with providers.”

Amanda Gunter (Mahsa Saeidi/WFLA photo)

“Small businesses don’t deserve a hammering in the middle of this disaster – and the state caused it, they should pay for it,” Mr. Byers said.

The Byers say they were initially told they’d have to repay the money in three months. Then it became 12 months.

Since we started asking questions, they’re now getting up to 24 months.

Coalitions across the state tell 8 On Your Side they’re committed to tailoring repayment plans to providers.

The Florida Department of Education has not explained why they launched a broken system or who built it.

Full statement from Dept. of Education Deputy Director of Communications Cheryl Etters:

“Even through the challenges created by the pandemic, 99% of providers are open, and we’ve already successfully addressed any questions with the coalitions. One of the things we’ve done is made sure they’ve had flexibility and manageability. This issue has been addressed. Below are all the steps we’ve taken.

The Office of Early Learning (OEL) governs day-to-day operations of the School Readiness and Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Programs statewide early learning programs along with the Child Care Resource and Referral system. Across the state, 30 regional early learning coalitions and the Redlands Christian Migrant Association are responsible for delivering local services. As nonprofit organizations, coalitions also leverage local private and public partnerships to meet children’s needs.

Section1002.82(2)(p), Florida Statutes, required OEL to establish a single statewide information system. Following is a timeline of implementation and our response to database migration issues that resulted:

  • In July 2018, OEL migrated the data from 35 EFS Legacy databases into the EFS Modernization system (EFS Mod) that now serves as the statewide system. Data migration errors occurred involving School Readiness (SR) reimbursement data.
  • For the 2018-19 fiscal year, while fixes were being made to the database, OEL advised early learning coalitions to pay providers estimated payments based on their number of children served and the number of reimbursable days in the month. Due to child absences and events that would increase or decrease the amount a provider is paid per child (e.g., Gold Seal accreditation, changes in the child’s age, etc.), and different methodologies used by coalitions to estimate payments, some providers were overpaid and some underpaid. OEL reduced all provider overpayments by $1,500.
  • We are waiting for Coalitions to finalize their reconciliation workbooks with their final reconciliation numbers. Anecdotally we do know that some coalitions worked with their providers closely and ended up having no or very little reimbursements needed.
  • In April 2019, providers began entering all attendance for 2018-19 fiscal year in the new Provider Portal.
  • This year, OEL executed agreements with all 30 early learning coalitions delineating the specific steps and timelines to complete the reconciliation process. Specific requirements included paying providers that were underpaid and initiating repayment plans for providers that were overpaid.
  • As the agreements were executed and on many of the weekly calls with executive directors of the early learning coalitions, OEL reminded coalitions that flexibility and compassion should drive their negotiations with providers regarding repayment plans. Many coalitions, as directed, reached out and worked with OEL on flexible terms and options to meet individual provider circumstances and needs.
  • In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In addition to allowing coalitions to delay implementation of repayment plans, OEL worked quickly to ensure coalitions could support providers so they in turn could continue to provide families with child care and early education services.

o Spring 2020: Distributed to providers $14.2 million in mini-grants to meet infrastructure, cleaning and supply needs and teacher training stipends.

o Spring 2020: OEL provided mini-grants to provide mental health services to child care staff and the families they serve, as well as support the use of high-quality curriculum by SR providers ($2M for each two sets of mini-grants to early learning coalitions).

o March 2020: Suspended terminations of SR child care services and extended timelines for submission of paperwork by parents to maintain eligibility for families.

o In April 2020: OEL, in coordination with local early learning coalitions, created a referral process and financial incentives to expedite access and referrals for 26,000 children of first responders and health care professionals – 87% of these children were new enrollments in the program. Over 4,000 eligible early learning/child care providers, with SR contracts, received a monthly bonus/incentive of $500 per child (with a maximum limit of $12,000 per provider location). $76.9 million

o April 2020: Began reimbursing VPK providers based on enrollment as opposed to attendance. $84.4 million

o April 2020: Waived required SR copayments for parents ($9.6M per month), and reimbursed SR programs based on enrollment as opposed to attendance ($7.9M per month).

o May 2020: Provided flexibility for eligibility for SR child care by adding “job search” as a purpose for care for families.

o In July 2020, OEL launched the first of four phases of CARES Act grant allocations:

  • Phase I (July): Emergency Child Care Relief Grants for Early Learning/Child Care Providers – $52.8 million
  • Phase II (July): High-Quality Reopening Support Grants for Early Learning/Child Care Providers – $19.1 million
  • Phase III (August) : Contracted SR/VPK Providers – $16.9 million
  • Phase IV (November): COVID-19 Crisis Emergency Funding – $19.8 million

o November 2020: received approval to allocate $24 million to continue the child care program for first responders and health care providers.

Since March, nearly $407 million has been allocated to help keep open and re-open providers safely. The result: even at the height of the pandemic almost 50 percent of providers were able to remain open and today 99 percent of providers are open and serving Florida families.”