WEST PALM BEACH — Under fire for the way it has been running the Head Start and Early Head Start, the Palm Beach County Commission is pulling out of the federal program that helps poor children prepare for elementary school.
Instead, the county is throwing its support behind Lutheran Services, which will partner with the School District of Palm Beach County and the Children Services Council to run the program.
Lutheran Services will seek to become the grantee for the federal funds allocated to the program. Assistant County Administrator Jon Van Arnam said it’s a win-win situation.
“This would provide us a unique opportunity to provide what some would say is a model approach to an exceptional education for our children,” Van Arnam said.
The total fiscal year budget is a little more than $27 million, with $19 million of that being grants, including $16.4 million from Washington.
Asked what would happen to the 230 staffers employed by the county in its Head Start program, Van Arnam said, “We will do everything we can to place them.”
Samuel Sipes, president/CEO of Lutheran Services Florida, said the group, if awarded the grant, would seek to hire as many current staffers as possible. “Our intent is to hire people already there,” he said.
Lutheran Services already runs Head Start programs in Belle Glade, Hillsborough and in Pinellas County, where they are the grantee and run a full program with 1,700 kids. Sipes said although their charity component was started by the Lutheran Church, religion is not a part of their programs.
The shift to Lutheran Services is projected to save an estimated $3.6 million a year by reducing the county’s annual contribution to the program. That extra money would be used to pay for services for middle and high school students, Van Arnam said. “This would also strengthen the early childhood programs,” he added.
The Head Start program, launched nationally in 1965, helps nearly 2,300 Palm Beach County children from low income families with infants to 5-year-olds to get an educational boost before entering elementary school. Other services offered include health screenings, including vision, dental, and hearing, mental health services, family support services and nutrition. The program serves more than one million children nationwide, a majority of them minorities.
Like several federal programs, funds for the Palm Beach component dried up with the more than a week old U.S. government shutdown sparked by a dispute in Congress over the new budget and the Affordable Care Act.
However, the County Commission voted unanimously on Oct. 1 to spend $1.2 million to keep the program operating through Oct. 25. If the shutdown continues after that date, it is unlikely the county will continue paying for the program and parents will be forced to find daycare elsewhere, which many of them cannot afford. Commissioners will revisit the issue on Oct. 22.
Head Start has had a rocky last few years in the county, judging from a recent review and other reports. The review, by the federal government, found several “deficiencies” in the way in which the program has been operating.
As a result, the county was required to compete with other agencies wanting to run the program and no longer automatically given a grant to do so.
The review found that there were problems with how the county was monitoring the program and that performance appraisals were not in place. Other areas of concern, not related to the review, are that Head Start day care centers were paid differing rates per child.
Other documentation showed that certain funds were not used and, instead were sent back to the federal government.
The South Florida Times sought an interview with Channell Wilkins, director of the county’s Department of Community Services, who oversees Head Start, but his office said he was out sick and he did not return a phone call.
At least one Head Start provider said he was not surprised the county would have been forced to compete for the grant. Timothy Wingate Jr., executive director of Apostolic Child Development Centers, which has been involved with Head Start since 1999, said he’s seen a decline in how the program has been run since he came on board in 2009.
“I’m not surprised at the deficiencies,” said Wingate. “It’s been on a decline since 2009.”
Wingate also questioned why day care centers are awarded different rates for doing the same job. He said he was not given an answer by those who run the program.
Wingate said he welcomes the change if it benefits the children.
“Apostolic Child Development Centers are paving the way in how we service children under 5 and we welcome anyone who is going to take these children to the next level,” he said.
Daphne Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Pictured above is Jon Von Arnam