Safety issues part of Head Start dispute

Even though the long-standing local provider may no longer administer the Head Start program due to apparent safety concerns, the program will remain in Bibb and Monroe counties, a federal official said Thursday.

This year, the Macon-Bibb County Economic Opportunity Council was required to compete with other agencies for its standing as the grantee for Head Start due to “a deficiency in meeting program requirements,” Pat Fisher, public affairs specialist for the Administration for Children & Families in Washington, D.C., said in an email.

“I can assure you that the Head Start grant funding and services for the children and families of Macon-Bibb and Monroe counties will remain in Macon-Bibb and Monroe counties.”

The EOC, which has been a Head Start provider for 36 years, now receives a grant of more than $6.7 million per year to fund the program. But that funding appears to be headed elsewhere when this fiscal year ends at the end of June. Issues found in a 2013 review of the agency resulted in the grant not being renewed automatically.

Some of those problems were outlined in a letter from Ann Linehan, acting director for the Office of Head Start, to Lonnie Miley, the president of EOC’s board of directors, on Feb. 3, 2014.

The first requirement in question related to the safety of the environment at Head Start centers.

“Grantee and delegate agencies must provide a center-based environment free of toxins, such as cigarette smoke, lead, pesticides, herbicides, and other air pollutants as well as soil and water contaminants. Agencies must ensure that no child is present during the spraying of pesticides or herbicides. Children must not return to the affected area until it is safe to do so.”

No specific examples from Bibb County centers were given as evidence of deficiency.

The second highlighted requirement dealt with procedures for assuring the safety of children.

“Grantee and delegate agencies must conduct a safety inspection, at least annually, to ensure that each facility’s space, light, ventilation, heat and other physical arrangements are consistent with the health, safety and developmental needs of children. At a minimum, agencies must ensure that: The selection, layout, and maintenance of playground equipment and surfaces minimize the possibility of injury to children.”

Last month, Miley sent a letter to Head Start’s regional office acknowledging that the EOC had been informed that “we were not getting our program back.” He addressed issues from the 2013 review, but none of them related directly to the safety of facilities.

Miley did note that the agency had obtained a new school building from the Bibb County Board of Education for the 2016-17 school year and had combined three of its centers into one.

At the time of the letter, Miley said he was surprised another agency was being considered for the program.

“To award the entire grant to another agency that does not have our history, connections, cooperation and proven ability is unfathomable,” Miley wrote. “If there were concerns over our ability, it would have been more understandable, based on our long history, to split the grant award up.”

On Thursday, members of the EOC’s board of directors said they had not been given clear notice of the agency’s official status with Head Start.

“We’re still awaiting some letter to let us know whether we’ve been funded or not been funded,” said board member Sam Henderson.

Fisher said the Administration for Children & Families has already begun negotiations with a “preliminarily selected awardee,” but a final announcement could come as late as June 30. Until then, EOC officials remain hopeful that the agency has a future with Head Start programming.

“We’re still very excited about getting the new grant,” Henderson said. “We’re still very much concerned with taking care of our children as well as their families.”

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331.