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Mid Florida Community Services, Inc. v. Department of Children and Families

Florida Court of Appeals, First District

October 30, 2019

Mid Florida Community Services, Inc., Appellant,
v.
Department of Children and Families, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of any timely and authorized motion under Fla. R. App. P. 9.330 or 9.331.

          On appeal from an order of the Department of Children and Families.

          Jennifer C. Rey of The Hogan Law Firm, Brooksville, for Appellant.

          Jane Almy-Loewinger, Assistant General Counsel, Department of Children and Families, Daytona, and Stefanie Camfield, Assistant General Counsel, Department of Children and Families, Tallahassee, for Appellee.

          PER CURIAM

         This is an appeal from a final order of the Department of Children and Families ("DCF") concluding that Mid Florida Community Services, Inc. ("Mid Florida") is required to obtain a child care license for each of its five Head Start ESE Blended Classrooms operated pursuant to a cooperative agreement with the Volusia County School District ("VCS"). Because the blended classroom sites were entitled to an exemption from licensure under sections 402.302(2) and 402.3025(1), Florida Statutes (2017), we reverse.

         I.

         Mid Florida is a private, not-for-profit Florida corporation operating a variety of social service and early education programs, including twenty "Head Start" programs in Hernando, Sumter, and Volusia counties.

         In 2010, VCS entered into a cooperative agreement with Mid Florida to create Head Start "blended classrooms." The blended classrooms were created to help VCS meet state standards for serving pre-kindergarten aged students with disabilities in its district. VCS served those students by placing them in "blended" environments with typically developing peers. The Head Start ESE Blended Classrooms consist of eight ESE students enrolled as VCS students and ten non-ESE typically developing peers that are not VCS students but are eligible to enroll in a Head Start program.

         The cooperative agreement states in part:

The joint programs authorized by this Agreement constitute integral programs of the School Board of Volusia County for purposes of section 402.302(2), Florida Statutes for the following reasons:

a. District teachers and paraprofessionals work directly in this joint program with students enrolled in the District. Head Start staff participating in the program are funded by [Mid Florida].

b. This joint program operates only on school campuses owned, operated and exclusively paid for by the District;

c. This joint program takes place on school campuses which are exclusively administered and managed by school administrators of the District;

d. This joint program is among the program options offered by the District to its students; and

e. The District has exclusive control over the curriculum offered to students in this joint program.

         In 2017, in response to an inquiry from Mid Florida to DCF regarding the need for licensure of one of its relocated Head Start classrooms, [1] DCF issued a "Determination Letter" concluding that eighteen of Mid Florida's Head Start classrooms, located in three different counties, were subject to licensure as child care facilities. All but five of the eighteen sites identified were already validly licensed.[2] The five sites that were not licensed are the five VCS Head Start ESE blended classrooms at issue in this case.

         Mid Florida contested DCF's determination regarding the five Head Start ESE blended classrooms through a formal administrative hearing. The testimony at the hearing established that the blended classrooms were created to serve the needs of pre-kindergarten students in the district. VCS determines whether a Head Start blended classroom is needed at a particular school by assessing how many children in the area would benefit from those services. The decision whether to have a blended classroom program is made annually. The blended classrooms are in VCS schools and use VCS's calendar. VCS has "exclusive control" over the curriculum offered in the blended classrooms. Each classroom has one VCS teacher and one VCS teaching assistant, and one Mid Florida teacher and one Mid Florida assistant. The teachers work cooperatively to teach all the children and there is no segregation of ESE and non-ESE students in the classroom. The principal of the school where the classroom is located has final say concerning discipline of all students in the classroom. The classrooms also follow VCS guidelines on visitors. It is the Head Start (Mid Florida) teacher's responsibility to cover any additional education requirements that go above what VCS is required to provide. All Mid Florida employees working in the blended classrooms are required to be vetted and screened by VCS. The blended classrooms are subject to Department of Education standards and required performance and learning outcomes. VCS is responsible for the cost of feeding the eight ESE students while Mid Florida is responsible for the cost of feeding the ten non-ESE students in compliance with Head Start requirements. VCS provides funding for the ESE children enrolled in the blended classrooms, and Mid Florida provides the funding for the Mid Florida teacher and teacher's assistant.

         The administrative law judge's recommended order concluded that the five blended classrooms sites are "integral programs" of VCS and are "directly operated and staffed" by VCS. As such, the judge held that the blended classroom sites are entitled to an exemption ...


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