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Feds suspend Head Start funding, cite irregularities

By Sonny Long
Aug. 11, 2010 at 3:11 a.m.
Updated Aug. 12, 2010 at 3:12 a.m.


ONLINE

To see The Notice of Summary Suspension letter from the Department of Health & Human Services sent to the Advocates for Children and Families notifying it of the 30-day suspension in federal funding, click on the PDF.

AREA HEAD START CENTERSVictoria County - Victoria (5)

DeWitt County - Cuero, Yoakum, Yorktown

Jackson County - Edna

Gonzales County - Gonzales (3), Nixon, Waelder

Lavaca County - Hallettsville

Calhoun County - Port Lavaca (2)

The federal government suspended funding Wednesday to the local organization that operates Head Start programs at 17 locations in six counties.

Advocates for Children and Families was notified Monday that effective Wednesday at 5 p.m., it will be in suspended status, said Evelyn Burleson, president of the organization's board of directors.

FEDERAL REVIEW

The suspension is a direct result of a report issued May 28 by the Office of the Inspector General. Advocates for Children and Families raised concerns following a 2009 limited scope review.

The review was conducted as part of the federal Office of Head Start's assessment of programs that have applied for additional grant funds under the Recovery Act of 2009.

In July 2009, Advocates for Children and Families was awarded $333,341 in Recovery Act grant funds.

The report's summary of findings states, "We could not perform a fair assessment of Advocates' financial viability because its financial records were not always accurate." And "advocates did not effectively manage and account for federal funds or operate its Head Start program in accordance with federal regulations."

The letter notifying Advocates for Children and Families of the suspension from the Administration for Children and Families regional office in Dallas states, "We are taking these actions to suspend federal financial assistance and notify you of deficiencies that must be corrected immediately...."

The letter enumerated the following findings that the local agency:

"Lacked an effective financial management system to adequately manage and safeguard federal funds.

"Used grant funds awarded to pay prior year's expenses.

"Reported an unallowable and/or overvalued non-federal share contributions in the amount of $323,107.

"Provided its board of directors with monthly expenditure reports (from 2005 through 2009) ... that misrepresented actual expenses.

"Had questionable arrangements with an accounting consultant and auditor.

"Failed to ensure that appropriate internal controls were established and implemented to safeguard federal funds."

CHILDREN WON'T BE AFFECTED

The more than 600 children enrolled in Head Start will not be affected by any loss of services, said Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director, Office of Public Affairs, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Community Development Institute Head Start has assumed interim management of the area Head Start programs.

"There will be a seamless transition," Wolfe said, adding that seven Head Start classrooms in public schools serving a total 130 children will start Aug. 23. All other Head Start classrooms will open Sept. 1. A total of 686 children are enrolled in Head Start in the six-county area.

FEDS TAKE OVER

Employees and staff were briefed Tuesday about the transition to federal control, Wolfe said. Local funding remains in place for program operations.

The interim takeover could affect some of the organization's more than 130 staff members, but Wolfe said attempts were made to keep current workers in place.

A site manager from the federal government is assigned to assist local staff during the suspension.

"CDI tries to use local expertise in the community," Wolfe said. "But if they feel there is a need, it has the flexibility to make improvements."

The suspension, which could also result in outright termination, is for at least 30 days, but "CDI will take it as long as needed," said Wolfe.

REINSTATEMENT POSSIBLE

The agency's board of directors and executive director Joyce Hyak have requested an informal meeting with the regional office to show why the suspension should be rescinded, Burleson said.

The organization could potentially correct the issues identified in the suspension, Wolfe said.

"If that were to occur, (they) could be reinstated," he said.

The Administration for Children and Families will "go through the normal process" in finding a possible replacement for Advocates for Children and Families if the organization is not reinstated, Wolfe said.

In a telephone interview, Hyak seemed to contradict Burleson, not acknowledging any suspension of funding.

"Head Start is not suspended by any means," she said. "We just keep on going like we have the last 32 years."

Hyak said the funding "will be coming in more slowly, on a weekly basis and not all at one time."

Hyak, 71, has overseen the local Head Start program since 1977. In January 2009, she was also named president of the Texas Head Start Association.

In 1996, Hyak was suspended, then reinstated by the board of directors, for reportedly ignoring complaints of child abuse in Gonzales. She said at the time, as reported in the Advocate, that the suspension was a "smokescreen" for the mishandling of financial affairs by the Community Action Agency that managed Head Start funds at the time.

That agency was in charge of Head Start beginning in 1973. Advocates for Children and Families took over full-time administration of Head Start in 1997.

Created in 1965, Head Start is longest-running, national school readiness program in the United States. It provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent-involvement services to low-income children and their families.

Nearly 25 million pre-school aged children have enrolled in Head Start since its inception.

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