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First Things First? 

Arizona's new early-childhood-development program already finds itself in serious jeopardy

There's a new sound in Southern Arizona these days. It is the whisper of money, as hefty funds from the First Things First program land in our communities.

Created by a voter-passed initiative in 2006, First Things First adds 80 cents to the cost of every pack of cigarettes, and steers the proceeds toward early-childhood-development programs across the state.

Depending upon your perspective, this either represents a huge leap step toward addressing the needs of children up to the age of 5—from health and education to proper day care—or it's a cash-cow for every agency that can rustle up some sort of child-related program.

Then there are those, perhaps the majority, who consider First Things First a work in progress. That's no small challenge, either, in a state where decades of neglect have left communities short on the capacity to put the sudden cash flow to work.

"We're sitting on all this money," says one source close to the program, "and we're just trying to find ways to spend it."

As a result, says the source, funds can go to duplicate efforts, or projects only tangentially related to early-childhood development.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature have made a few grabs at that money—unsuccessfully, so far, but they've made the program's administrators more than a little nervous.

A draft budget proposal floating around has lawmakers asking voters to repeal First Things First, and to transfer its $325 million bankroll to the general fund. Gov. Brewer, meanwhile, has discussed borrowing $300 million from that fund.

So there's a lot of money at stake. This year alone, the Central Pima Regional Partnership Council—one of 31 regional First Things First councils across the state—received just more than $8 million to be spread among the various agencies vying for grants.

But the low quality of many applications has left administrators dismayed. As a result, some council members have called for a less-onerous grant procedure, one which would make it easier for small agencies and businesses to compete. Others have pushed for more professional development among those agencies, to raise their level of sophistication.

Until that happens, however, the preponderance of money is flowing to big local players, including the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona. In fiscal year 2010, the organization administered nearly 40 percent of funds awarded to Central Pima, and garnered nearly $490,000 for its work.

That has raised concerns about such a concentration of money being funneled through a single organization. The anxiety is amplified by a financial scandal that rocked the group last year, when it failed to disburse funds owed to nonprofits throughout Tucson.

But others cite the overall expertise of United Way, pointing out that First Things First was created from scratch just a little more than three years ago, and needed to draw on all the experience it could find.

Among them is Diane Umstead, First Thing First's regional manager for Southeastern Arizona. But when we contacted Umstead, she said she wasn't permitted to talk until we first contacted the agency's public-information officer.

After Umstead received permission from First Things First gatekeepers, she told us that criticism of the still-developing program is unfair. When it was created, "none of the systems or the infrastructure were even up and running for us to even release grant awards," she said. "All that work had to be done."

Charting a new direction was also emphasized. "We went into this with the idea that we didn't want to be like a typical state agency, because it wasn't. We have a state board, and we have 31 regional councils, all made up of community volunteers. And we wanted to do it so there would be an opportunity for many people to apply for the grants."

But according to Umstead, many of the initial grant applications were disappointing. "We did receive responses from the smaller places. But most of the places that responded didn't know how to write a grant.

"So maybe we have a larger issue in our entire community that we have small entities—either nonprofits or individual entities like child-care centers—that just don't have the ability, the knowledge, the training or the instruction to know how to respond both with (writing a grant) and writing a budget."

Tucson lawyer John Munger is a GOP candidate for governor and a member of the Central Pima council. He suggests that the complex requirements may discourage a broader pool of applicants. "I would prefer to see more competition for the grants," he says. "And we're working on that. It's unfortunate that the grant process is very technical. It requires expertise in and of itself. That's one problem, and it means that the large organizations have a major advantage—including United Way—because they're more familiar with the grant process."

As a remedy, Munger says the council is working with smaller organizations "who maybe haven't been involved in the grant process previously to give them a better, more equal opportunity."

Until then, large outfits such as United Way will continue to dominate First Things First in this part of Arizona. Of course, not everyone sees that as a detriment. "We've been working on early childhood education since 1999," says LaVonne Douville, the local United Way's vice president for community development. "And we've built collaboration among people in this community that involves many, many early-childhood and family-support providers, community members and government people."

She points to the United Way's decade-old First Focus on Kids project, aimed at improving the well-being of children and getting them prepared to attend school. Strategies range from early-literacy programs to boosting the quality of child care. "So we've been a leader in early education for a long time," Douville says, "way before First Things First."

At the same time, she says, the United Way mostly serves as a middleman that funnels First Thing First money to other organizations. "So when you talk about us getting these big grants, it's very important to understand that almost all of that money goes back out into the community—to community agencies, big and small."

That includes support for small mom-and-pop child-care providers "who get coaching and support from us," she says.

"It's apparent that we are the big guy in town. I understand and appreciate that other people might have a concern about that. But because we can be competitive and respond to (grant requests) shouldn't be a mark against us."

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