Escambia Children’s Trust Aims To Improve Lives
One of the most significant local issues to be decided in the Nov. 3 General Election is a referendum asking voters to take a bold step toward improving the well-being of children in Escambia County.
In recent weeks, backers of the initiative have ramped up their campaign, with billboards, mailers, and new radio and TV spots.
“The children of Escambia County need your vote,” begins this ad. It goes on to state that Escambia ranks fourth-highest in the state for child abuse cases, but adds that a yes vote can help change that.
“Protect our children. Go first to the last item on page three of your ballot and vote yes for Escambia Children’s Trust.”
“We are so delighted to be sharing with you today and appreciate you taking the time to listen and learn about the Escambia Children’s Trust,” said Kimberly Krupa, executive director of Achieve Escambia and one of the chief proponents of the Escambia Children’s Trust, as she opened a recent Facebook Live presentation.
“This is truly a once-in-a-decade, once-in-a-lifetime, perhaps, moment for us to invest in children and families and in our communities.”
Essentially, the referendum calls for the creation of a Children’s Services Council, a governmental body to be known locally as the “Escambia Children’s Trust,” to oversee funding for programs and services for children and families. If approved, this would establish an independent special district authorized to levy an annual ad valorem tax of one-half mill for 10 years in order to provide additional early childhood education, safety, developmental, preventative, health and well-being services.
Krupa says a review of youth data in the county makes the case that the answer should be, absolutely, yes.
“We’ve been looking at the problems in our community for a long time and frankly, they’re not getting any better,” Krupa declared. “A lot of our indicators and outcomes that we measure are actually getting worse, things like child abuse.”
She pointed out that Escambia County is now ranked fourth in Florida in the number of kids who are abused and neglected. Additionally, Escambia ranks .”top five in the state in the raw number of youth arrested and incarcerated before they turn 18.
In dealing with these problems year after year, Krupa says Escambia County has recorded incremental improvements at best, while other counties are faring far better on nearly every measure of child-wellbeing.
“Overall, we’re ranked 47th in Florida out of 67 counties. Neighboring Santa Rosa ranked number 2. We believe we can and we must do better,” she declared. “Frankly, with the current situation, financial, public health with the pandemic, things are not going to get better.”
Krupa says they plan to target their efforts in three general bucket areas, filling gaps and cracks in services where Escambia has the greatest needs.
“We see the biggest return on investment being birth to 5, specifically birth to 3-years-old,” said Krupa.
“Lots of children are falling behind immediately after being born, and we see that in our kindergarten readiness results, where only 47% of our entering kindergarteners are ready for school. We believe we can catch a lot of those developmental learning issues in the early years with, frankly, learning services that don’t exist in this county.”
There also will be a priority on more out-of-school enrichment and academic support for older children. The third area of focus will be on stabilizing and strengthening the family unit.
If approved, the Escambia Children's Trust would generate about $8 million per year, with the potential to generate up to $14 million annually through matching funds. It will cost homeowners an average of $40 annually.
On the Escambia Children’s Trust campaign website, escambiachildrenstrust.org, there’s a long list of organizations and individuals who’ve endorsed the referendum.
Ruthie Christie from Pensacola Young Professionals, Jen Grove, with Baptist Healthcare and Sheriff David Morgan are among those who taped testimonials.
“I’m Sheriff David Morgan, asking you to vote yes on the ballot initiative for Escambia Children’s Trust,” Morgan began in the video recording. He said the lack of early intervention in Escambia is a societal problem that develops into a law enforcement problem.
Although, there’s no organized opposition to the Escambia Children’s Trust, not everyone is onboard. Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill, the most vocal opponent, noted his disapproval from the start.
“The best of intentions motivate us to do things which very often fail to meet the lofty goals given in the advertisement,” Underhill stated at the board’s June 16 regular meeting. “We should never support a dedicated funding line with taxpayer dollars as this removes the motivation to perform efficiently and meet clear metrics.”
“A Children’s Services Council has really incredible oversight measures in place, with quarterly monitoring, annual reporting, and lots of Sunshine oversight that you would expect from any government agency,” responds Krupa.
She assures there will be no duplication of services, providers will have to compete through a competitive request for proposals process, and those entities awarded contracts will be held accountable.
“If the expectations laid forth in the contract aren’t met. If programs aren’t delivering outcomes for kids, then that contract is revoked,” she proclaimed.
If the referendum wins voter approval, collection of the half-mill ad valorem tax would begin in 2022, with the first contracts awarded in the fall of that year following a comprehensive, community-involved needs assessment.
In her online presentation, Krupa said establishing a Children’s Services Council would give Escambia a tool that already has proven successful in nine other counties in the state.
“We have the will. We know we have the ability and we definitely have the data to back up that Escambia County needs this,” Krupa said.