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Group Loses Funding for Head Start : Preschool: Parents urged Child and Family Services to fire two program officials. But agency instead withdrew funding so it could find someone else to run the program.

September 16, 1993|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Glendale parents who accused Head Start of misspending money sparked action by the agency that administers the preschool program. But the action they got wasn't what they had in mind.

Instead of firing the Head Start director and another administrator, as parents demanded, Child and Family Services dropped Head Start from its roster of programs, leaving 270 low-income children without preschool and laying off 30 employees.

An official of the nonprofit, Echo Park-based agency said the action was taken so that another group could be found to operate the Head Start program, which provides children of low-income families with free lunches and preparation for kindergarten. If the agency had kept the $1.6-million grant, federal officials would have prohibited the group from opening Head Start classes until an investigation of the allegations was completed, which could take months, said Don Liddell, president of Child and Family Services board.

The agency, which manages other state- and county-funded programs, also severed ties with the Family Service Center, which offered counseling and adult education programs for Head Start parents and is scheduled to close today.

"Other (older) kids are going to school, and my son is not going to school," said Eugenia Watts, whose 4-year-old was supposed to begin his second year in Head Start. "I'm disappointed."

The 27-year-old Glendale woman is also collecting petitions in an effort to save the Family Service Center. If it closes, she said, Head Start parents may have nowhere to go to obtain counseling for substance abuse or to receive free meals.

Meanwhile, federal officials have been scrambling to find an interim agency to run Head Start's budget. The $1.6 million in funding covers two sites in Glendale--at 525 S. Pacific Ave. and 211 S. Pacific. One group has verbally agreed to operate the program, but officials withheld details pending a written reply from the group.

Despite concerns by staff members and parents that Family Service Center's grant would not be renewed, federal officials said Wednesday that they are planning to find another agency to operate the program.

Members of Glendale Head Start's Parent Policy Council first brought their complaints to Child and Family Services' board of directors late last year. The council coordinates annual budgets and other policies with the Head Start director.

At an Aug. 25 hearing, Catherine Gamez, council chairwoman, submitted an 11-page report, most of which questioned salary and budgeted expenses. For example, the report asked why health insurance rose from $42,300 in the 1992-93 budget to $89,400 in a proposed 1993-94 budget. It also questioned whether $120,000 was ever used to buy equipment such as computers and cameras.

Board members were also told about two instances in which children wandered away from preschool sites. As a result, the state's community care licensing office cited Child and Family Services, which held staff meetings and worked toward correcting the problems. In an unrelated matter, the licensing office fined the group $750 for failing to report a change of directors at school sites.

Near the end of the meeting, the council demanded that the board fire Wanda James, director of the Head Start program, and Fran Chasen, Child and Family Services executive director, who resigned last week for unspecified reasons. Neither James nor Chasen returned phone messages.

But instead of heeding the parents, board members decided to drop Head Start from the list of a dozen other services that Child and Family Services provides to the county.

"I can understand where they might be shocked," Liddell said of the parents' reaction. "But now that we see what's in front of us, we're trying to do what's best for all."

Liddell said the board could not simply fire or place the two officials in question on administrative leave because "that wouldn't have been fair for the people involved. These are unsubstantiated allegations.

"We have no reason to believe that there's been any hint of dishonesty or improper conduct of anybody involved."

The decision to relinquish the $1.6-million grant was also based on federal officials' warnings that a new Colorado Street site and the two regular Head Start sites could not be opened until the parent council's allegations were investigated, Liddell said.

"Faced with those facts, we concluded that we could put the families first, or put the interest of the agency first, and we chose the families," he said.

Meanwhile, an audit by an independent agency will be conducted on Child and Family Services' operations. Although the audit is normally required at the end of each fiscal year, it could determine whether parental concerns about spending are valid.

In the eight years that Child and Family Services has operated Head Start, no major mismanagement findings have been found by audits, said Norman Nagao, project grant manager for the government's Administration for Children and Families in San Francisco. The regional office issues Head Start grants.

The latest audit report, covering the 1991-92 fiscal year, only recommended that the group begin a three-year inventory of supplies and to properly cancel invoices once they are paid, Nagao said.

"We have had no problems with Child and Family Services fiscally," Nagao said. "Both of these are fairly common findings with grantees. They're relatively minor."

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