Feds not ‘squeaky clean’ in this Head Start mess
By: By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter
As a result of two probes of the program — March 5-6 and Aug. 12-17 — the feds in Washington issued two reports recently. Each report contained a list of non-compliances, which is just a fancy way of saying discrepancies. One report lists 10 discrepancies, the other contains nine.
The discrepancies are serious and not intended to be taken lightly. Whether corrections will be made remains to be seen. It all boils down to a question of who’s running the train. The feds reports suggest the program based in McKenzie is a loose cannon that operates autonomously, meaning on its own. In theory, it’s supposed to be a nonprofit branch of Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council (NWTEDC).
Here is some background to help you further understand this mess:
• Head Start, a national program, is funded nationwide by federal dollars — meaning taxpayers’ dollars. On a national scale, it is managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The program serves children of low-income families in 13 West Tennessee counties and is funded with a $10.2 million grant from HHS each year.
• On Nov. 9, Patricia Brown, HHS acting director of the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Head Start, signed and released the two reports mentioned above. She imposed a 90-day grace period for Head Start officials to correct the findings.
NWTEDC board chairman Macie Roberson and his peers, who supposedly control the Head Start program, have exactly 90 days to correct those 19 findings. Roberson has appointed a five-member “task force” to do just that.
But wait. A worrisome thought keeps knocking on the door of my Mississippi mind, it being this: If things at Head Start are so bad that a 90-day deadline to clean it up was imposed, why was the report of the March investigation withheld nine months?
I asked Roberson that very question. He declined to answer on the grounds he didn’t want to tell somebody else how to run their business.
So I contacted Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS in Washington. He replied via e-mail in proper, formal and starchy official language.
Wolfe asserts that “given the numerous and continuous complaints” about the program, ACF asked the HHS fiscal integrity unit to go in after the March investigation “to ensure that all issues were identified and allegations addressed.”
“That is what delayed the original report,” he said.
What we have here is an answer that is no answer at all. If the feds really wanted problems at Head Start in McKenzie corrected, they wouldn’t have waited nine months. So why are they now leaning on our local officials to achieve a miracle in just 90 days? As they say down in the everyday language of Old Choctaw, it just ain’t fair.
And there’s more.
In my original query to Wolfe, I asked him to explain a $468,000 loan the Head Start program acquired from Bank of America, using federal property as collateral. I also asked him about the missing titles to five Head Start vehicles (as contained in the reports) and to cite the authority by which the Head Start program pays college tuition for welfare mothers.
“The questions related to vehicle loans, who signed and amounts left (on the loan) will be understood once the grantee (NWTEDC) has provided its responses to the report findings within the 90 days stipulated for response and corrections,” Wolfe said.
In response to the part about paying college tuition costs for welfare mothers, he said, “All Head Start grantees are provided, as part of their annual grant awards, technical assistance funds. These funds may be utilized to pay the tuition of staff, particularly classroom staff, to enhance their education and obtain required credentials.”
I sent a second e-mail asking for further clarification. He e-mailed back that his original statement answered all questions. Truth is, it didn’t.
But by his statement, one can assume Head Start in McKenzie receives an unspecified amount of dollars — “discretionary funds,” meaning “use at your own discretion” — each year for education purposes. According to Head Start administrator Pamela Castleman, $18,000 was used in fiscal year 2006-07 to pay tuition expenses for welfare mothers, and $60,000 to pay expenses for Head Start employees to attend college or vocational school.
Two things come to mind:
• What about all those single mothers who are working minimum-wage jobs and paying taxes? Wouldn’t they like to have some of that free money for school, too? What makes welfare mothers so special?
• What about all the small businesses across Tennessee whose owners provide jobs and pay taxes? They don’t have a federal slush fund to pay education costs for their employees. So why should a government operation with a fatcat coffer of taxpayers’ dollars be so privileged?
Questions, questions. Come on, Washington. For a change, come clean and answer our questions.
Published in The Messenger on 12.14.07