Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (July 21, 2011): As part of a strategy to deal with a projected $17.5 million two-year deficit for 2012-2013, county administrators briefed commissioners about the possibility of eliminating support for Washtenaw Head Start, a program that the county has administered for 46 years.
The presentation stressed that Head Start – which serves over 500 preschool children of low-income families in the county – would not be eliminated. Rather, the county would relinquish its status as the program’s federal “grantee,” triggering a process to find a replacement entity. Federal Head Start officials would be responsible for selecting another agency to take over from the county.
The county currently spends about $900,000 each year in support of Head Start, which has a local budget of $4.8 million – the bulk of its funding comes from federal sources. In addition, the county owes $2.68 million in bond payments related to an Ypsilanti facility it built for Head Start in 2002-03.
Seven of the board’s 11 commissioners attended the working session, and several expressed support for exploring the transition. They praised the program, which has been recognized nationally for its performance, but noted that education isn’t part of the county’s core mission. Some suggested that an organization like the Washtenaw Intermediate School District would be a better fit to administer the program.
However, commissioner Ronnie Peterson spoke passionately and at length in defense of the county maintaining its support of Head Start. He said this was the first time he’d heard about the plan, and he criticized the administration for not alerting the board publicly about their intent to jettison the program. County administrator Verna McDaniel noted that she had laid out a schedule of topics for budget-related working sessions at the board’s first budget working session on June 16. Head Start as a general topic had been on that list.
McDaniel pointed out that the board had set priorities and instructed her to review closely all the county programs and services to determine whether the county should continue to offer them, in light of current economic conditions. “At the risk of maybe making some of you uncomfortable, I’m doing just that,” she said. The discussion about Head Start is in that context, she said.
Peterson argued that the board should look at Head Start in relation to other non-mandated programs that receive general fund support. What other programs should be part of the budget discussion? The county funds the Humane Society of Huron Valley, for example, he noted. [Rather than run its own shelter, the county pays $500,000 annually to the HSHV to provide animal shelter services mandated by the state.] Peterson said he loves his pets, but at the end of the day, Head Start is more important.
Washtenaw Head Start: Presentation
Kelly Belknap, interim deputy administrator, gave the formal presentation on tentative plans for the county to pull out as the responsible party for the Washtenaw Head Start program. She stressed that county officials are considering this option in the context of a broad review of county programs and services. As the county faces a projected $17.5 million two-year deficit for 2012-2013, the administration is reviewing whether some programs or services that the county now provides would be better offered by another entity. Questions and concerns raised by commissioners will help guide the administration, she said.
Head Start is a federal grant program that promotes school readiness for children from low-income families, between three to five years old. The program offers educational, nutritional, health, social and other services. The county has administered this program for 46 years – in federal parlance, the county is the “grantee” for the program in Washtenaw County. There are several sites throughout the county. The largest is in Ypsilanti, serving 262 children and their families. Another 299 children are served at sites in Ann Arbor, Whitmore Lake and Willow Run.
The program employs 34.8 full-time employees – of those, 25.5 are teachers, and 6 positions are in administration, including one that’s currently vacant. Most of the workers – 27.3 of the 34.8 FTEs – are represented by unions. [A report distributed later in the meeting by Washtenaw Head Start director Pat Horne McGee states that the program employs nearly 100 workers countywide, both full-time and part-time.]
Head Start’s budget for 2011-12 is $4,854,094 – the bulk of that ($3,675,966) comes from federal funding. Another $528,048 comes from the county’s general fund, and the program also plans to use $129,838 from the Head Start fund balance during the fiscal year. Remaining funds come from in-kind contributions and a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reimbursement.
To retain federal funding for Head Start, the county (as grantee) must fund at least 20% of the total budget – or about $918,000 in FY2011-12. That comes from the combination of general fund dollars and in-kind support, Belknap said. In addition, the county subsidizes part of Head Start’s cost allocation plan (CAP) – an amount charged to each county department for things like the county attorney and administration. Head Start’s CAP was assessed at $435,000 in FY2010-11, Belknap said, but the program was only charged $167,974. Over the years, she said, the county has typically exceeded the 20% requirement.
Including the CAP and general fund support, Belknap told commissioners that Head Start had received $5.976 million in subsidies from the county since FY2005-06.
The question that the administration is now asking, she said, is whether Head Start is part of the county’s core mission. While it’s a solid program, perhaps there are partners in the community that are better-suited to operating it. The program is discretionary – it’s not a service that’s mandated by the state. What’s more, educational programs aren’t part of the county’s core function, she said – even though the county is proud of Head Start. On the financial side, personnel costs continue to rise but federal funding will likely remain flat, at best, she said.
The program could continue under a different grantee, Belknap said. The process would work like this:
- The county would notify the regional Head Start office that the county intended to relinquish its status as grantee.
- A date would be set to end the county’s participation in the program.
- The national Head Start office would issue a request for proposals (RFP) and select a new grantee. Entities that could qualify as a grantee include: (1) a public entity – like a school district, university, municipality or a new consortium; (2) a nonprofit or for-profit organization; or (3) a regional Head Start office.
- If no new grantee is selected by the county’s end date, the national Head Start office would appoint the Community Development Institute (CDI) as the program’s interim manager. CDI is a federally funded entity specifically charged with providing this kind of interim service for Head Start programs. Current Head Start staff in Washtenaw County would have to re-apply for their positions, Belknap said.
Another factor to consider is the $3 million Head Start building that the board of commissioners voted to build in 2002, Belknap said. The county owes $2.68 million on bond payments through 2022.
It’s likely that the building will factor in to any agreement made with the next grantee, Belknap said. She noted that all of the “rent” paid by Head Start goes directly to the bond payments. In addition, Head Start will make payments to the county through FY2052-53 to repay the county for the full amount of the bond. The county will also need to determine what obligations it has for more than $748,000 it received in federal funds for the building, she said.
Belknap concluded by laying out the proposed next steps. The board would make a decision about Head Start as part of the 2012-13 budget it approves in November. In December, the county would notify the regional Head Start office of its intent to relinquish its responsibility for the program, and set an end date of August 2012 to end participation.
Washtenaw Head Start: Commissioner Discussion
Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the working sessions, began by framing the discussion with a question: Is Head Start a service that the county government should be providing?
Ronnie Peterson was the first to respond – and he responded at length. ”There’s a lot of stuff we shouldn’t be in the business of, but we’re in it,” he began. He wondered who had scheduled this topic – it was the first he’d heard that the county was considering letting go of Head Start.
He hoped the county would always be in the business of securing the healthy future of its children. The county is often the place of last resort, Peterson said, but the county government’s safety net already has a lot of holes. The county has cut back on programs even during good times, he said. Whenever that happens, it’s important to understand the impact these decisions have on the people that are served. The presentation on Head Start didn’t include that kind of information, he said.
Peterson pointed to recent changes at the juvenile court as a similar situation. The old facility on Platt Road was dilapidated and that was the reason cited for moving the juvenile court to the downtown Ann Arbor courthouse – yet the reason the original facility was dilapidated was because the county didn’t invest in it, he contended. That was a choice that was made. In the past, county commissioners have made verbal commitments to services for children, but they haven’t followed through with funding, Peterson said. And now the board is talking about leaving Head Start, which has won national awards, he noted.
Peterson said he couldn’t believe no one had brought up this transition at earlier meetings. The county had built a new $3 million facility for Head Start just a few years ago. If Head Start was on the table, why didn’t county officials bring in experts to talk about what the options are? he wondered. The county spends more money on vehicles in a year than it does on Head Start in 2-3 years, he said.
Peterson wanted the county administration to put the Head Start discussion in the context of other non-mandated programs that receive general fund support. What other programs should be part of the budget discussion? The county funds the Humane Society of Huron Valley, for example, he noted. [The county pays $500,000 annually to the HSHV to provide animal shelter services mandated by the state.] Peterson said he loves his pets, but at the end of the day, Head Start is more important.
He noted that school districts are facing budget deficits too – how will those districts be better equipped than the county to handle Head Start?
The board needs to form a budget & finance committee to work more closely on these issues, Peterson said, so the board can get more control over the county’s finances. It’s been embarrassing for several years, he said.
When Peterson finished his turn, Rabhi reviewed for commissioners the budget process that they agreed to earlier this year, which included priority-setting retreats. More recently, commissioners had voted to add five working sessions devoted exclusively to budget issues, Rabhi noted – the topics for those working sessions had been discussed at previous meetings, he said, “and this is one of them.”
From Chronicle coverage of the first budget working session, on June 16:
Finally, [county administrator Verna] McDaniel provided a list of topics for budget-related working sessions in the coming months:
- July 7: Updates on the WCHO split from the county, the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority, and the Ann Arbor Skatepark
- July 21: Head Start
- Aug. 4: Retirement funding, unfunded accrued liabilities, debt, and time owed to employees
- Aug. 18: County building/space plan, county/city of Ann Arbor dispatch consolidation
- Sept. 9: Health care reform, tax increment financing (TIF)
The remainder of scheduled working sessions for September, October and November will be budget-related, but specific topics have not been identified at this point.
McDaniel repeated Rabhi’s comments, stressing that the topics of the budget working sessions had been discussed at their June 16 meeting. She noted that the first major reorganization had been to consolidate three departments – the office of community development, the economic development & energy department, and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department. Staff had briefed the board on that consolidation at several points, she said, including a May 5, 2011 working session. [The board gave initial approval to the consolidation at its July 6 meeting, and are expected to take a final vote on Aug. 3.]
These working sessions are a forum for the administration to bring forward proposals and seek board input, McDaniel said. She noted that the board had set priorities and instructed her to closely review all the county programs and services to determine whether the county should continue to offer them. “At the risk of maybe making some of you uncomfortable, I’m doing just that,” she said. The discussion about Head Start is in this context.
McDaniel emphasized that she is not proposing to eliminate the Head Start program. The question is whether the county government is the best grantee for it. The presentation was not intended to impugn Head Start in any way, McDaniel said.
In response to a query from Peterson, McDaniel said that in addition to the three-department consolidation and possible Head Start changes, other possible reorganization includes the county/city of Ann Arbor dispatch consolidation and possibly increasing the county’s IT partnership with Ann Arbor. [For background on the dispatch consolidation, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor, Washtenaw: Joint 911 Dispatch?"]
Wes Prater said he understood that Head Start is a discretionary program, but it has enjoyed strong board support. He believed the county should consider finding a different grantee, but he’s concerned about what would happen to the children and families if the transition is unsuccessful. He asked for additional information in writing – including background about how school districts are currently involved – and said this won’t be the only board discussion on the issue. But if there’s another grantee out there that could take over responsibility for Head Start, the county should consider it, he said.
Dan Smith clarified the funding that the county currently provides to Head Start: (1) $528,000 annually from the general fund; (2) $267,000 in a subsidy for Head Start’s portion of the county cost allocation plan (CAP) – an amount charged to each department for things like the county attorney and administration; and (3) a portion of the bond payment for the Head Start facility.
Kelly Belknap, interim deputy administrator, said that when she referred to the county supporting Head Start with $5.9 million over a seven-year period, she was not including the bond payments. That’s because the Head Start program has made a commitment to pay off the county’s portion of those bond payments eventually – through fiscal 2052-2053.
D. Smith confirmed that in total, the county paid about $900,000 annually to support Head Start. He also drew out the fact that Head Start’s fund balance was low – there isn’t much more available in the fund balance beyond the $130,000 that Head Start plans to use from it for the FY2011-12 budget, Belknap said. She added that if union concessions are secured for the coming year, Head Start would need to use less of its fund balance.
Alicia Ping said if the county could find another qualified grantee, that would be great – especially if it’s an educational entity. But she also agreed with Peterson’s desire to see the whole picture, not just to be presented with isolated options on ways to cut expenses.
Leah Gunn weighed in to defend some of the board’s past actions. Her first year on the board, in 1997, she joined the Head Start policy council. At that time, Head Start officials at the federal level had told the county that its Head Start program was failing, she recalled. The county eventually hired Horne McGee, she said, who built it into a program with a reputation for excellence.
Gunn said it breaks her heart to look at these numbers, but it takes almost $1 million to run the program, offering services that school districts like Ypsilanti and Willow Run can’t provide. But given the county’s other obligations, she added, she couldn’t see how the county could continue to run it.
The county hadn’t cut children’s services, Gunn continued. In 1998, the board instituted the children’s well-being program and has allocated roughly $1 million each year to nonprofits that provide children’s services, she said.
Turning to the topic of the juvenile court, Gunn said the reason that the county built a new juvenile detention center was that the Platt Road facility had been uninhabitable. She’s proud of the new facility and the programs run out of it. The same is true for the juvenile court – county staff determined that the Platt Road location wasn’t worth renovating, so the court was moved downtown. She disputed Peterson’s contention that kids are forced to mingle with adult offenders.
Gunn pointed out that the other major non-mandated service that the county provides is police services. She noted that the board had been through that discussion, and the majority of commissioners determined that police services were a priority. So the county is spending millions of dollars to subsidize the cost of sheriff deputy patrols for municipalities that contract for those services, as well as supporting general fund deputies, she said.
The board knows her feelings about this, Gunn said, but she voted yes because she didn’t have the votes on her side and she didn’t want to waste everyone’s time debating it. [Gunn, one of four commissioners who represent Ann Arbor, has previously voiced dissent over the amount of money that the county spends to offset the cost of sherif deputy patrols throughout the county. For additional background on the issue, see Chronicle coverage: "The Price of Washtenaw Police Services"]
While she is sad to lose the program, it doesn’t mean that Head Start will be eliminated, Gunn said. The county will find another grantee. She recalled a similar situation when the county decided that it could no longer support the Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled. Now that service is provided by the Ann Arbor District Library, she noted. These are hard decisions, but the board must determine whether Head Start is a core service or not. ”In the end, it probable is not,” she said.
Rob Turner, a former Chelsea school board member, told commissioners he’s dealt with Head Start from the school’s perspective – it’s been successful in some districts, less so in others, he said. Turner agreed with some of Peterson’s comments, and suggested that county officials talk to leaders of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) to see if they’re interested in taking on the program. The WISD, as a countywide educational entity, would be in the best position to coordinate it, he said, and make it even stronger and more effective.
Turner said the county is the wrong entity to handle Head Start, but he’d hate to see the program turned over to the feds – there would be a disconnect with the community, he said. The county needs to work to find another agency to take on the program, so that the baton can be passed without disrupting services to children and their families.
Gunn pointed out that Head Start is actually a federal program now – it’s monitored by federal officials, receives the bulk of its funding from the federal government, and must meet federal standards. If the county wants to end its participation, there’s a process that must be followed – and the county can’t select the entity that would take over the program. ”I’m sorry to say that’s the truth, but when you take federal money, you have to follow federal rules,” she said. “That’s the way it is.”
Peterson replied, “It may be federal dollars, but these are Washtenaw County babies.” He again described his concerns about the impact on the children and families, and said he hoped that the board’s next meeting would be filled with parents and children who would show commissioners how much the families need Head Start. His district wasn’t the most challenged – Rolland Sizemore Jr.’s district held that distinction, he said. [Sizemore represents District 5, covering parts of Ypsilanti Township and Superior Township.]
But Peterson added that he also had a lot of disadvantaged people in his district [District 6, covering Ypsilanti and part of Ypsilanti Township] and called himself an advocate and a voice for the disadvantaged and poor. He warned his fellow commissioners not to expect his support for their issues, if they didn’t support resources for children.
The county pays for other mandated services – like the sheriff’s road patrols, the energy department and participation in the Urban County, Peterson noted. He supported those programs, but is troubled that others aren’t supporting attempts to lift children out of poverty.
Gunn responded by saying she grew impatient with Peterson for claiming he’s the only one who has poor people in his district, or who cares about children. Every commissioner does, she said, and she especially resents it given her long-time work with Head Start and funding for children’s services. And as for the Urban County, it’s also a federal program, she noted – it receives money from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) specifically for projects in low-income neighborhoods and for low-income residents.
Turner thanked Gunn for pointing out that the transition for Head Start wasn’t something that the county could decide itself. However, he said, it’s been his experience that state and federal officials are receptive to recommendations. If the county suggests an entity to take over, he believed the federal agency would entertain that suggestion to make the transition smoother.
At the end of the discussion, Rabhi wrapped up by thanking commissioners for their input on what was a hard topic to discuss. The theme he’d heard was that the most important thing is what’s best for the children. Rabhi said that will weigh heavily on his mind as commissioners continue exploring options for Head Start.
Wasthenaw Head Start: Public Commentary
About a dozen Head Start staff and supporters attended the July 21 session, but only two people spoke during public commentary at the end of the meeting.
Shirley Beckley said she’s lived in Ann Arbor her whole life and is a product of the school system. Her grandson goes to Head Start and has benefited from it, and she’s disappointed that commissioners are talking about shifting the program out of the county’s control. She hoped the board would reconsider. She’s worried that shifting it to another entity would be disruptive, and the children and families don’t need another disruption in their lives. Beckley said she’s also had reason to interact with the county’s juvenile court system, unfortunately, with some of her children and grandchildren. She was disappointed that the facility had been moved to the downtown courthouse – she’d come to one of the board’s previous meetings to speak against that move, but said the public didn’t really have any say-so in the matter.
Beckley hoped the county would take care of Head Start the same way they’ve taken care of the juvenile court. Commissioners say they’re not in the business of educating children, ”but you’re in the business of locking them up!” she said. Head Start is one way to take care of children so that it doesn’t reach that point. The Head Start program has a director who cares about the children and who has a national reputation, Beckley said. She’d hate to see things get lost in the shuffle of moving to another entity, and to see the children suffer. She again stated that she hoped they’d reconsider.
Pat Horne McGee, director of Washtenaw Head Start, also addressed commissioners during public commentary – she had not been part of the formal presentation. She’s been director for the past 12 years, she said, and wanted to clarify some things. Head Start isn’t primarily an education program, she said – it’s a comprehensive development program, addressing a child’s emotional, social, and health needs. If children are not healthy, they can’t learn, she said. Before coming to Washtenaw, Horne McGee said she’d been director of Head Start in Wayne County, which was also an award-winning program. The Wayne County grantee, an intermediate school district, ended the program because it wanted to focus on K-12 education. But preschool is vital to K-12 success, she said.
Horne McGee passed out copies of letters of support for the county to keep Head Start. Among them was a letter from former Ann Arbor city councilmember Leigh Greden, who’s now executive director of government and community relations for Eastern Michigan University. He wrote about the partnership between Washtenaw Head Start and EMU, which brings children and their parents to EMU’s campus in the fall.
She also distributed a briefing paper that described the local Head Start’s impact on the community and economic development. Among other things, the document (1) outlined ways that the program has made cuts over the years to address the worsening financial situation, and (2) proposed several alternatives that could lower the county’s general fund contribution to Head Start – options such as requesting additional in-kind contributions from local partners, and tying staff raises to increases in federal grant support.
Horne McGee concluded by thanking the Head Start staff and parents – and former parents, she said, pointing to county treasurer Catherine McClary – who had attended the meeting that night.
Washtenaw Head Start: Public Commentary – Commissioner Response
Leah Gunn noted that she served on the Head Start policy council when the county hired Horne McGee, and said Horne McGee has been a fantastic director. ”All we need is money to make this work, my friends,” Gunn said. The program aims to break the cycle of poverty, Gunn added, and if the county could keep the program, it would. But she didn’t see how the county could find the money to do that.
Ronnie Peterson expressed displeasure that Horne McGee hadn’t been part of the formal presentation. He indicated that it’s appropriate for any program director to participate in that way, when their work is being discussed. Rob Turner echoed that sentiment, noting that all three department directors had participated when the reorganization of their areas had been discussed before the board. He highlighted Horne McGee’s comment about the importance of preschool preparation for K-12 success, and said that’s why it would be good to have the WISD or a school district take over the program.
Yousef Rabhi said he thought there had been an invitation extended to Horne McGee to participate in the presentation, but that for some reason that didn’t work out. It’s not his intention to shut people out, he said. [Horne McGee told The Chronicle after the meeting that she'd been told to attend, but not invited to make a presentation.]
Wes Prater reminded his colleagues that they have a county administrator, Verna McDaniel, who is under contract to present a budget to the board – that’s her job. When the board gets the budget, commissioners can slice and dice it anyway they want. But first, he said, ”I think we need to allow her to do her job, then we’ll do ours.”
Peterson replied that it seemed to him there are meetings taking place in advance of the public meetings – some strategy had already been laid. If that’s the way the game is played, he said, then that’s all the more reason to have a budget & finance committee of the board. Commissioners hire, fire, restructure and adopt the budget, he said. Their working sessions are meant to discuss these issues. ”Tonight was a one-sided presentation,” he said. “Let’s not make it that way again.”
Prater responded to Peterson by saying he wasn’t talking about the presentation – he was talking about the overall process. The board doesn’t have the authority to tell the county administrator what to put in the budget. It’s in her contract as her responsibility, Prater said.
Present: Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rob Turner, and Dan Smith.
Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Kristin Judge, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith
Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. The Ways & Means Committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [confirm date] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public comment sessions are held at the beginning and end of each meeting.
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