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Pinellas’ juvenile board rejects reading-program provider that Commissioner Ken Welch favored

CLEARWATER –– The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County rejected proposals from two nonprofits who wanted to take over a taxpayer–funded literacy program for disadvantaged children in southern St. Petersburg.

The move on Thursday came weeks after Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch lobbied the board’s members this summer to hire one of the nonprofits, which had vowed to hire his wife, Donna. She was fired from another group that ran the same reading program.

Board member and Pinellas–Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he questions the effectiveness of the reading program in recent years. It serves about 71 kids each day –– and costs an average of $8,500 per student for the academic year. The public agency, he said, has no way to measure whether the program has improved literacy rates.

"To me, that is excessive," McCabe said. "I think we need to start over. I’m sorry, that is not an effective use of our money."

The Juvenile Welfare Board awards tax dollars to run the $600,000 annual program. The board voted unanimously to reject proposals from St. Petersburg–based R’Club Child Care and the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. The board instructed staffers to develop a better model for a program that could serve more children in the county’s five poverty zones, not just the one in St. Petersburg.

The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg has been running the program since the Juvenile Welfare Board took it away from the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center in June. It will continue to temporarily run the program.

Turmoil engulfed the program in June when the Juvenile Welfare Board found that Donna Welch and two other Sanderlin leaders received a total of $16,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts. An investigation found that the Sanderlin executive director changed a policy to allow the payouts. Welch was exonerated but later terminated for cause. Sanderlin trustees won’t cite a reason.

RELATED: Sanderlin Center board fires a county commissioner’s wife. But why?

When the R’Club submitted a proposal to run the program on Aug. 30, Ken Welch, a Democrat, started holding private meetings and calls with seven of 11 members on the Juvenile Welfare Board. He complained about his wife’s termination and urged the board to move the program to the R’Club, the members said.

The turmoil has caused a riff in parts of the city’s African-American community. When the YMCA took over, it angered pastors. Several churches receive rent money to house classes for the program.

RELATED: Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welchj lobbied public officials about a job for his wife

Ken Welch said city politics is behind the controversy. He believes Sanderlin trustee Deveron Gibbons is trying to sabotage his 2021 mayoral campaign by ruining his wife’s reputation. She ran the reading program for 11 years. Gibbons scoffed at the accusation.

On Wednesday, the board was expected to pick one of two proposals, but staffers asked permission to split the program between both groups. They scored the R’Club slightly higher than the YMCA.

Board member Bob Dillinger, the public defender for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit, opposed that and said it seemed like the staff was "trying to split a baby here. These children need to be served."

Added businessman and board member Mike Mikurak: "I don’t know if it increases the number of participants."

Executive director Marcie Biddleman said her staff didn’t have enough time to create a better plan because of the turmoil.

The board then focused its discussion on why the Juvenile Welfare Board didn’t offer a similar program in other parts of the county and what could be done to improve attendance rates. Several residents urged the board to award the program to the R’Club.

McCabe interrupted one speaker and said "part of the crisis was caused by certain members of the community." He then urged staffers to find the solutions to improve the program in the next six months.

"It’s got to be a deep dive," McCabe said. "Maybe this whole kerfuffle that we’re in has been a blessing."

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] Follow @MarkPuente.

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