barbara_jordan_web.jpgMiami-Dade County employees charged with preparing young children for success at school may be among the first to lose their jobs under the 2011-12 budget proposed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

It is extremely troubling to me that half of the workers slated for lay-off are those operating 43 Head Start and Early Head Start centers serving low-income children and families. It is unacceptable that we are considering the lay-off of 395 of the employees, mostly women, mostly heads of household and mostly minority workers, a good proportion of whom are the parents of children formerly served by the program.

So why are Miami-Dade County Chairman Joe Martinez and members of the Board of County Commissioners so eager to go along?

Mayor Gimenez, who was recently elected, promised a reorganization of county government that would consolidate leadership, eliminate duplication and reduce administrative costs. The number of county departments would be reduced from around 50 to 25, with a concurrent reduction in high-paid executive staff needed to run them. But, before submitting a plan for the downsizing of the county bureaucracy, we see the budget ax raised over the heads of some of our most vulnerable employees.

These are not the kinds of cuts that are in the best interests of our community. I am disappointed that a majority of the members of the commission support the mayor’s proposal.

The commission voted on July 14 to authorize the county administration to prepare a plan for privatizing all of the Head Start/Early Head Start slots currently operated by the county by delegating them to another agency or agencies. Alternative strategies were rejected, including revenue enhancements, having Head Start live within its means, partnering with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and even reducing the number of days that centers are open (a plan that parents voted for).

The mayor estimates that the savings to the county will be $3.57 million in general fund match to the $56 million in federal grants the county receives for Head Start/Early Head Start. The mayor’s budget proposal states that the transfer of county-operated Head Start slots to another provider will save the county money while maintaining the same number of program slots and days of service. This assessment is smoke and mirrors.

The reality is that over the past 18 months the county has had to take repossession of several privately run programs because of mismanagement, rising costs and decreasing quality of services. Additionally, the Head Start Regional Office and financial consultants constantly complain that they can never rely on the numbers for Head Start cost overruns or savings because the county numbers provided to them keep changing and are extremely difficult to follow and verify.

Teachers, teacher assistants, custodians, social workers, family service workers, curriculum assistants, food service workers and center directors hold the 395 jobs proposed for elimination. These county employees currently provide services to Head Start children, who are 3 and 4 years old, and Early Head Start children, who are under 3 years of age. The centers are located in communities assessed to be in the greatest need in the county. Last year, nearly one out of every five of the county’s Head Start/Early Head Start employees was the parent of former students.

Since Miami-Dade began operating Head Start in 1971, hundreds of parents have been employed, working their way out of poverty and becoming effective advocates for their own children and families and leading members of their communities. Generations of these county workers have benefited from the health and life insurance, education opportunities and retirement benefits that county service provides.

The futures of these employees are at stake and the outcome is uncertain. It is not known how many would be hired by the new operators, how much they would be paid and for how long. We cannot force private providers to hire former county Head Start employees, not even as a condition of the contract.  The one thing that is certain is that 395 mostly women, mostly heads of household and mostly minority employees will lose their retirement, health care, and life insurance. Partnering with Dade County Public Schools would at least preserve that.

The plan to privatize Head Start is unacceptable. Choosing 50 percent of all county employees slated for layoff from Head Start, a single program, in a single department, is not fair or equitable. It’s just plain wrong.

Barbara J. Jordan is Miami-Dade County commissioner for District 1.

Photo: Barbara J. Jordan