A Small World

Conflict-of-interest concerns surround an early-childhood development program

Ask any Joe off the street what he knows about early-childhood development, and you're likely to face a blank stare.

So it's understandable that a state program, created to disburse funds for that very purpose, would draw a concentrated crew of the relatively few people who do have knowledge about early-childhood development.

It's likewise logical that some folks might consider this crew just a bit too cozy.

Among the latter is Mimi Gray, executive director of Community Extension Programs Inc., a Tucson nonprofit that, among other things, operates early-learning centers in local schools and summer programs for older students. Gray also sits on the Central Pima Regional Partnership Council, one of 31 boards in Arizona that administer funds from a program called First Things First.

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

This year alone, the Central Pima Council allocated about $8 million to agencies ranging from the Association for Supportive Child Care—for a teacher-education program—to the Easter Seals Blake Foundation.

Locally, much of that money is funneled through the United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona; in fiscal year 2010, the organization administered nearly 40 percent of the funds awarded to Central Pima, and garnered nearly $490,000 for its work.

Which brings us to Naomi Karp. Touting a long career in children's issues—including more than 20 years with the U.S. Department of Education—Karp offers a wealth of expertise to the First Thing First's North Pima Regional Partnership Council, which she chairs. But she's also director of early-childhood professional development for the United Way.

This year, Karp's North Pima Council awarded $1,766,223 in First Things First funds. Of that, more than 40 percent was allocated to the United Way.

Karp was out of town and unavailable for comment. But according to representatives from the United Way and First Things First, Karp has recused herself from all decisions regarding the United Way since the organization hired her in October. They also argue that all potential conflict-of-interest questions have been vetted by attorneys, and add that Mimi Gray's organization also receives a small amount from First Things First.

Still, feelings that this relationship is a bit too cozy surfaced in March, when Karp appeared before the Central Pima Council on behalf of United Way. She came to discuss First Things First's Innovative Professional Development project, for which nearly $600,000 has been awarded by the Central Council this year, administered through the United Way.

Mimi Gray raised her concerns about Karp at the next council meeting a month later. "Naomi is the chair of North Council," Gray said. "She is now working for a primary grantee (the United Way), and I think that makes things a little murky."

That relationship "really needs some reflection," she said. "Is it really an appropriate relationship?"

Such questions gained added purchase after the state Legislature recently enacted a proposition, slated for November's ballot, to repeal First Things First and transfer its $350 million bankroll to the general fund.

Critics charge that this overlap highlights how most of Central Pima's funds are allocated to a few big players—the United Way being biggest among them. But others defend the practice, saying that much of that money is then passed along to smaller "collaborators."

However, this isn't always the case. Consider Child and Family Resources, a Tucson-based organization offering services that range from counseling for expectant mothers to sending support specialists into troubled homes.

Recent budget cuts at the Arizona Department of Economic Services—which provides much of the organization's funding—were catastrophic, says CEO Eric Schindler. "It's been a rollercoaster ride for Child and Family Resources. We lost 70 employees directly and 120 total through other programs that we funded with other agencies when DES made their dramatic cutbacks a year ago February."

But since then, Schindler says his office has been quite successful at winning First Things First grants, many of which are administered through the United Way. So successful, in fact, that the funds now account for one-third of his agency's budget. All 70 positions vacated by layoffs have been re-filled.

But was First Things First intended to have so many of its funds concentrated in organizations such as Child and Family Resources? Schindler doesn't see a problem.

"While not a perfect funding mechanism, the First Things First Program is far better than the Legislature," he says, "primarily because the money is disbursed across 31 regions of the state. That in and of itself guarantees that it's not being controlled by a handful of statewide players."

But what if—as in Southern Arizona—only a few players have a place at the table?

Albert Wat is project manager for Pre-K Now, a Pew Center on the States campaign aimed at boosting investment in early-childhood development. While calling the widespread dissemination of funds vitally important, he also blames long-term neglect for the shortage of qualified First Things First participants.

"For Arizona, as far as (pre-kindergarten) programs are concerned, it has been a relatively small investment, and it's been flat for years," Wat says from his office in Washington, D.C. "When you don't have sustained investment, it's not surprising that you have community providers that are of low-quality, and who might not have the capacity to improve their programming or to access available funds."

That only raises the challenge of meeting two key factors for a successful pre-k program. "One, you want to make sure that all the programs you're funding are of a sufficient quality level, so that you're not putting money into bad programs. And two, you want to make sure that the funding is accessible to a broad array of providers, whether they are the mom-and-pop child-care centers down the street or the large, United Way-type programs."

The Central Council has discussed offering more coaching for service providers wanting to submit grant proposals. But the task is daunting, according to Dr. Arthur Andrew, a pediatrician at downtown's Tucson's El Rio Community Health Center and the council's chairman.

Arthur says that many small organizations just wanted First Things First funding to keep their existing programs afloat, while larger ones understood the project's desire for fresh, new approaches. "Given the complexity of the grant-application process, do some of the smaller players—who might otherwise be interested in trying to solve part of the problem—lack the expertise to come up with a proposal? The answer, to me, is absolutely yes.

"We're looking for an apple orchard," he says, "and they're proposing a small fruit stand."

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