LONG BEACH — The executive director of the Long Beach-area Head Start program shut down 11 preschools this week following reports of threats and vandalism that he says are at least indirectly linked to an internal struggle for control of the agency.
Richard Madrid said he suspended classes for all 887 students at the Long Beach and Hawaiian Gardens sites until Monday because of recent threats of violence against two parents who have strongly supported the appointment of more blacks and Southeast Asians to the agency's Latino-dominated board of directors.
The one-week suspension of classes comes just days after federal officials warned Long Beach Head Start to appoint representatives from more ethnic groups and community organizations to its board or risk losing its $2.6 million grant.
Closing the preschools provided a "cooling-off period" that was necessary to ensure that no harm came to the parents, their children or others, Madrid said.
A spokesman for the FBI said the agency was contacted about the matter last week and referred it to the Long Beach Police Department. That department said it had received a complaint from one parent, who reported phone threats Feb. 24 until Feb. 27. The two parents could not be reached for comment.
Madrid said he did not know who is responsible for the threats or for the minor damage done 2 1/2 weeks ago to his and his chief deputy's automobiles, and similar damage to the private preschool owned by board Chairwoman Carrie Bryant, who also favors a greater ethnic mix on the board.
But he said the parents who were threatened "have been identified by certain pockets of (Head Start) employees as being anti-Hispanic (and) they've been targeted. . . . I think the issue is an internal political issue about board representation."
Bryant also said there's a connection between the threats and board infighting, but added that she has no proof.
Roberto Uranga, a Head Start board member and sharp critic of both Madrid and Bryant, said he was outraged by their comments. Neither he nor any member of the board's Latino majority is connected to the threats, he said.
Uranga said Madrid and Bryant are using the publicity surrounding the threats and vandalism to gain sympathy and support, and that Head Start parents and children have been the losers. He said Bryant, who is black, is attempting to increase her influence and black membership on the board.
"I don't know why they broke the news on this," said Uranga, referring to the threats and the one-week suspension of classes. "If they had kept quiet it wouldn't have created this big scare. Now we have parents upset and apprehensive and wondering what's going on."
Uranga said the Latino board majority, which was not involved in the decision to close the 11 preschools, also favors greater representation from a wide variety of community and ethnic groups. But he said it wants to make sure that Latinos do not end up being under-represented. After a conversation Tuesday, Uranga and Bryant said they would probably meet in an emergency board meeting Wednesday evening. Both said, however, that they would only discuss the reopening of the Head Start sites on Monday. (The outcome of the meeting could not be learned before press time.)
Board composition will be discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday, they said.
Both said they will attempt to work out a compromise that will diminish tensions and allow the seven vacancies on the 15-member board to be filled soon. The board is now made up of two blacks and six Latinos.
But Bryant said she also is working separately to gain support for her own reorganization plan from Head Start regional administrators in San Francisco and local public officials.
And Uranga said he will continue to charge Madrid with mismanagement of the Head Start program until federal officials agree to investigate hiring, contract and personnel practices.
Madrid decided to temporarily suspend Head Start classes last Friday after he met with Bryant and the agency's legal counsel, and after consulting with regional Head Start officials, who said they sanctioned the move.
Earlier in the week, the Head Start Policy Council, parent advisers from preschool sites, voted unanimously for the suspension because of the vandalism and threats, said Madrid and Bryant.
Roy Fleischer, program director of the federal agency that administers Head Start in the West, said he talked with Madrid and other Long Beach administrators last week and agreed that children, parents and staff members could have been jeopardized if classes had been held this week.
Fleischer said several Head Start teachers and administrators told his staff last week that they had also received anonymous telephone threats during the previous 10 days. The callers demanded that the Head Start staff members support "one faction" of the directors' board, Fleischer said.
Madrid and Bryant said they did not know about threats to Head Start staff members.
Years of Turmoil