jamari-campbell_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

MIAMI GARDENS — Regina Odiwo returned to her job on Monday  teaching preschoolers enrolled in Head Start, a federally funded child development program for low-income families.

She nearly didn’t make it.

Odiwo was among 332 Miami-Dade County Head Start teachers, staffers and administrators who lost their jobs in the spring after the County Commission decided to privatize 43 of its Head Start centers and put them up for bid.

“I kept thinking something would happen that would make them reconsider,” said Odiwo, who had been a Head Start teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School in North Miami Beach for 12 years. But the county didn’t reconsider and on June 1, Odiwo was out of a job.

So were Gwendolyn Collie, who also worked as a Head Start teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle for eight years, and Neyda Davila, a Head Start teacher at Westview Middle School in unincorporated Miami-Dade for six years.

Several Head Start teachers and administrators who once worked at county run centers said talk of layoffs had been swirling around for four years but still they were caught off guard by the county’s decision.

Davila said she cried when she received her termination notice. “Everything went blank,” she said.

The county’s action was prompted by large discrepancies in pay, pension plans and benefits between Head Start teachers and administrators at county-run centers and their counterparts at 37 Head Start centers run by private groups and non-profits.

According to the county Community Action and Human Services’ budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, a teacher working at a county-run Head Start center earned just over $76,800 in wages and benefits for the 10-month school year. That was 64 percent  more than for a counterpart at a center run by the United Way of Miami-Dade, who earned a little more than $27,600 for the same period.

County records show that the second-highest paid private Head Start teachers that fiscal year worked for Catholic Charities, at a little more than $40,400 but still roughly 47 percent less than what their county counterparts receive.

In separate interviews, Miami-Dade Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Rebecca Sosa said that many county-employed Head Start teachers and administrators had advanced degrees and enjoyed benefits, such as county pension plans, which boosted their salaries substantially every year.

By bidding out the centers, “the county was able to standardize costs and payment to better equalize and make high-quality service delivery more consistent for all participating children,” said W. David Allison, spokesman for Community Action and Human Services.

“In addition, this model made it possible for the county to be able to serve up to 500 more children this year” at four new centers that will be run by the agencies awarded contracts, he said.

The county awarded six of its centers to Easter Seals South Florida, four to the YWCA of Greater Miami-Dade and four to the O’Farril Learning Center. But the biggest number went to Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which was awarded 34 centers at public schools that were already hosting the program.

As the grantee of the federal funds allocated to run the Head Start program in Miami-Dade, Community Action and Human Services will continue to administer the program which is funded to serve 6,756 children and their families, Allison said. Some 4,100 of the children are black, 3,525 are Hispanic and 170 are white.

Despite Head Start’s new growth potential, the commission’s swift action during the summer months concerned Jordan. She said many of the laid off teachers were minority women from low-income communities who were once Head Start beneficiaries themselves.

These teachers “were willing to take pay cuts to keep it going but the commission wanted to privatize it,” said Jordan.

Sosa, however, said the change was necessary. “The savings will allow us to bring in more children,” she said. “So many needy kids are still on a waiting list.”

As for the teachers, “we made sure we were sensitive to the needs of teachers,” Sosa said.

As it turned out, a majority  of the laid off personnel were rehired by the new operators of the centers, thanks to efforts by the company.

Collie was rehired by the YWCA and now works at the Marta Sutton Weeks Early Learning Center near downtown Miami. “I’m going to miss my pay,” said Collie, a sentiment her fellow Head Start teacher Davila shared. “But I still have four kids of my own to feed.”

Odiwo and Davila also found work with new center operators, at the Ophelia E. Brown-Lawson Head Start Center in Miami Gardens run by Easter Seals.

Special correspondent Myriam Masihy contributed to this report.

Photo: Jamari Campbell