Head Start Advocates Make Emotional Plea

County might relinquish administration of program by 2013

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (Oct. 20, 2011): The fate of Washtenaw Head Start was the focus of the county board’s most recent working session, as advocates for the preschool program filled the boardroom and lobbied for continued support. A proposal to relinquish control of Head Start, which the county has administered and helped fund for 46 years, is part of the 2012-2013 budget.

Head Start supporters

Washtenaw Head Start supporters filled the county boardroom on Oct. 20 at a working session of the board of commissioners. (Photo by the writer.)

Eighteen people spoke during public commentary, many of them staff or parents of children in Head Start – and many with their children in tow. They described how transformative the preschool program has been in their lives, and made passionate appeals for the county to keep administering it.

The county administration first made a formal proposal to the board at a July 21 working session, when county administrator Verna McDaniel and her staff laid out details of a transition. McDaniel noted that the county isn’t in the business of education, and that it made sense to consider moving the program to another grantee – especially in light of a projected $17.5 million general fund deficit that the county was facing in 2012-2013.

If approved by the board, the county would notify the federal Head Start program of its intent to relinquish its grantee status. County support would continue through 2012 – a line item of $528,000 for 2012 is in the proposed general fund budget, part of Head Start’s total $4.8 million budget. But the county would hand off the local Head Start to federal administrators at the start of 2013. Federal officials would then be responsible for selecting another agency to take over the program.

Pat Horne McGee – Washtenaw Head Start’s executive director – received a standing ovation from the audience at the start of her presentation to commissioners. She noted that October is national Head Start awareness month, and that usually she’s there to accept a board resolution of appreciation. Horne McGee then reviewed a 9-page document she had originally distributed to the board this summer, which highlighted the program’s achievements and economic impact, and which proposed alternatives that would allow the county to continue administering the program.

Several commissioners stated their support for Head Start, but noted that the county wasn’t best-suited to administer it. However, Ronnie Peterson protested bitterly over how the process was being handled, accusing others – but not naming anyone specifically – of holding backroom talks with Washtenaw Intermediate School District officials about taking over the program. [The county could have input on the choice, but would not be empowered to decide which agency is selected. The possibility of WISD being the next grantee was discussed at the July 21 working session – Peterson attended that meeting and expressed similar concerns.]

It’s likely that commissioners will continue to discuss the future of Head Start, as part of their ongoing budget deliberations. They have until the end of the year to approve the budget, but only three more regular meetings are scheduled before then.

The Oct. 20 working session also included a very brief presentation about the county’s contracts for outside professional services. This report focuses on the topic of Head Start.

Head Start: Brief Background

As part of an effort to balance the 2012-2013 budget and overcome a projected $17.5 million deficit, county administrator Verna McDaniel has proposed eliminating support for Washtenaw Head Start. At her initial presentation to commissioners at the July 21 working session, she said the board had directed her to review all the county programs and services to determine whether the county should continue to offer them, in light of current economic conditions. That was the context for her proposal regarding Head Start.

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 about 260 children and their families. About 300 other children are served at sites in Ann Arbor, Whitmore Lake and Willow Run.

The program employs about 35 full-time employees – mostly teachers, plus about six positions in administration. Most of the workers are represented by unions.

The program would likely continue under a different grantee. The process would work like this:

  1. The county would notify the regional Head Start office that the county intended to relinquish its status as grantee.
  2. A date would be set to end the county’s participation in the program.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Another factor is the $3 million Head Start building that the board of commissioners voted to build in 2002. The county owes $2.68 million on bond payments through 2022. It’s likely that the building would factor in to any agreement made with the next grantee. Currently, all of the “rent” paid to the county by Head Start goes directly to the bond payments. In addition, Head Start will make payments to the county through FY 2052-53 to repay the county for the full amount of the bond. The county would also need to determine what obligations it has for more than $748,000 it received in federal funds for the building.

For more details about the program and previous board discussion, see Chronicle coverage: “Options Weighed for Washtenaw Head Start.” In addition to the July 21 working session, several Head Start supporters also spoke during public commentary at the board’s Sept. 21 meeting, when the 2012-2013 budget was formally presented.

Head Start: Public Commentary

Most of the 18 people who spoke during public commentary were staff or parents with children in Head Start. Here’s a sampling of that commentary, which lasted about an hour and was frequently met with applause from others in the audience.

Marcia “Marti” Bombyk said she’s an Ann Arbor resident and taxpayer, and a professor of social work at Eastern Michigan University. She’s also coordinator of EMU’s graduate certificate in community building and a neighborhood organizer in Ypsilanti, focusing on neighborhoods south of Michigan Avenue where there’s a high concentration of families in poverty. Bombyk told commissioners she’d like to address the bigger picture, and she read a letter from a former student of Head Start who’s now an adult. In the letter, the student explained how without Head Start, she wouldn’t be where she is today. It’s an investment in the future, helping to break the cycle of poverty. Bombyk said the letter was written by Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. [Sanchez is a Democrat representing California's District 47.] Bombyk urged the board to retain funding for Washtenaw Head Start.

John Franks said he’s a graduate of Ypsilanti High School and is getting a bachelor’s degree in business management. Head Start helped him be prepared for school, giving him that extra push and letting him know what to expect. If not for Head Start, he wouldn’t be talking to them today. Now, his three-year-old son is in Head Start too. His son has only been in the program for two months, but has already learned a lot, Franks said. He noted that Head Start had employed his mother, which helped out their whole family.

Franks’ fiancé, Jemma Wallace, described how their son – who she says is borderline ADHD – can now hold a pencil, and is eating fruits and vegetables. Wallace said she’d been struggling, and the Head Start teachers are giving her advice on how to be a better parent. Her son is now eager to go to school, she said. Wallace also gently chastised commissioners: “You all look kind of bored, but I want you to wake up!”

Jill Koeppe teaches at the Ypsilanti Head Start site, and said the teachers there are all dedicated. She worked hard to get her degree – the teachers have high credentials, she said. Koeppe drives 45 minutes to get to work and her student loan payments require a large part of her take-home pay, but she does it because she believes in the program. Everyone works extra hours so that they can help the Head Start families. It’s a wonderful program, she said.

Michelle Trummel of Ypsilanti described how she was taking Head Start families on a tour at Eastern Michigan University. On the tour, she asked EMU’s director of community relations to support their efforts to keep Head Start with the county, but he told her it was a done deal. This hurt her, Trummel said, but he was probably right – though she still hoped that he was wrong. The county is giving up on its most valuable asset – its children. Why are they selling out a program of excellence? There are over 40 staff at Head Start in Ypsilanti, including teachers, kitchen staff and others. All of them will be fired and have to reapply with whatever agency takes over Head Start, and they’ll lose county benefits. She might lose her house, Trummel said, and she knows of others who would face foreclosure. She said she’s known as the “Ypsitucky Queen,” and she’s a wealth of positive community relations – but now her fate lies with the board.

Melodie Tolbert walked up to the podium with a young boy, and said the boy was a former student of hers at Head Start, where she teaches. If the county doesn’t pay money at the start of these children’s lives, the county will pay much more at the end, if they get into trouble and are put in prison. Please don’t balance the budget on the backs of children, she said. Society is changing. Head Start provides a safe place for children to come, learn, and be fed nutritious meals. Tolbert held up a copy of the board’s budget principles, saying that commissioners are concerned about families and children – that’s what Head Start is all about, she said. They’ve worked hard to become a program of excellence, but they need the county’s continued support.

Shirley Beckley noted that she’s talked to the commissioners before. Her children, who attended Head Start, are now 48 and 49, and her grandchild now attends the program. She knows the county has to balance its budget, but even the governor of Michigan has decided to fund Head Start, so surely the county can, too.

Tiffany Gore said her 23-year-old son was enrolled in Head Start 18 years ago. The program fostered his love of school, helped him overcome learning disabilities and resulted in his becoming an honor student. He’s now studying at Michigan Tech, pursuing a degree in computer engineering. She also now has a three-year-old daughter who’s had some disabilities and is enrolled in Head Start – now her daughter is much calmer and pleasant to be around, and that’s given Gore peace of mind. She urged commissioners to retain the program.

Wadler Fleurina, who lives in Ypsilanti, has two kids at Head Start, and they always tell him what they’ve learned. Most countries that are poor don’t have decent education. Fleurina said he’s from Haiti, which has a very poor education system. Here, his children have opportunities because of Head Start. It will help them through high school and college, and let them reach new heights. He asked commissioners to find it in their hearts to keep Head Start going.

Jenita Holbrook noted that she lived in Romulus, but her second home is at 1661 Leforge Road in Ypsilanti – the Head Start site. She graduated from Head Start in the 1980s, growing up in a neighborhood that most commissioners probably only saw on TV. Their family would sometimes eat only beans and rice for weeks at a time, and their milk was powdered. She lived next to crack houses, and there were drive-by shootings. She lost two brothers to drive-by shootings, less than a year apart. But for her, Head Start has broken the cycle of poverty. If you don’t invest in children now, she said, they’ll end up being like the men who killed her brothers. Maybe Head Start could have prevented that.  “If you don’t keep it open, you’ll have a lot more on the streets,” she said.

Dwight Walls, senior pastor with the Greater Shiloh Church of God in Christ in Ypsilanti, described his past affiliation with the county and Head Start. He began working for Head Start in the late 1960s, first as kitchen staff, then as an assistant teacher, then working his way up to eventually serve as director for a short time. He was president of the employee union for 25 years, Walls said, and negotiated 20 contracts during that time. He said he was there to fight for the children because their lives are at stake. Head Start works, and will continue to work if they find money to keep it afloat. Walls noted that he’s worked on a lot of their campaigns to get commissioners elected. Let’s go back and relook at the budget, he said – together they can find the funding to make it work.

Caryette Fenner – president of AFSCME Local 2733, the largest union representing county employees – told commissioners that she was also a product of Head Start, but not in Washtenaw County. She didn’t remember the names of her teachers because she didn’t have a good experience. But her daughter attended Head Start here, and remembers her teachers because they had a positive impact on her life. Her daughter graduated from Michigan State and is working on a master’s degree – that’s all due to Head Start. Fenner said that when her daughter was in the program, one of the teachers encouraged Fenner to also go back to school, and she did. This is a program of excellence, she said. And whatever Pat Horne McGee tells her staff to do, they’ll do. Teachers have already made labor concessions, Fenner noted. The program brings value to Washtenaw County.

Flo Burke told commissioners to examine studies that have been done by the HighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti and the National Institute for Early Education Research. Studies show that quality preschool programs can make a difference, she said. Head Start is a program they just can’t let go. The county’s funding is just a small part of the Head Start budget, she noted – most of the budget is provided by federal funding. But if the county drops its sponsorship, it’s not clear what would happen. There’s no guarantee that anyone would take it over, she said.

The final speaker, Sara Burg, tearfully spoke about being a single mother, and how she didn’t know where she’d be without this program. Two of her children have graduated from Head Start, and another one just started. Without Head Start, her children wouldn’t be doing as well as they are, and she wouldn’t be able to keep a job because she couldn’t afford daycare. She urged commissioners to continue funding the program.

In addition to public commentary at the working session, commissioners had received a raft of letters from Head Start children and parents, lobbying the board to retain the county’s administration of the program. [.pdf of letters]

Head Start: Presentation

After public commentary, board chair Conan Smith thanked everyone for coming, and said it was never the board’s intent to see Head Start disappear. They’re working on a strategy to maintain the organization’s full breadth of services, he said. Yet the county has to be cautious and not be arrogant in thinking it’s the best entity to provide this service, Smith added. If the county does vote to reduce its budget allocation to Head Start, Smith said it’s a vote he’ll make only if he’s confident that another provider can step in.

With that, Yousef Rabhi – who chairs the working sessions – introduced the executive director of Washtenaw Head Start, Pat Horne McGee, who received a standing ovation from the crowd of supporters in the audience.

Horne McGee noted that October is Head Start awareness month, and that usually she’s there to accept a resolution of appreciation from the board. She referred to a handout that she’d originally distributed to the board this summer. [.pdf of Head Start impact document] It was important to provide a framework for what Head Start has accomplished, she said, in order to make a decision about its future. She also pointed to the board’s budget decision principles, citing three that she felt related directly to Head Start:

  • Support programs that address the basic needs of children and families.
  • Support programs that increase economic opportunity for residents.
  • Integrate efforts across agencies to meet strategic priorities.

Horne McGee asked people to stand up if they were parents of Head Start children and also worked for the program – several people in the audience stood. Head Start isn’t just a child development program, she said. It’s also a community development program that helps people acquire skills and emerge from poverty. Many of Head Start’s staff have matriculated or completed professional degrees with support of the program and the county, she said.

Horne McGee touched on a range of other points from the 9-page impact document. 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. The options specified under the second point included items such as requesting additional in-kind contributions from local partners, and tying staff raises to increases in federal grant support. She also referenced letters of support from the community that commissioners had received this summer regarding Head Start.

Alluding to the public commentary, Horne McGee said the best stories have already been told, adding that she’d be happy to answer questions from the board.

Head Start: Commissioner Discussion

Alicia Ping began the discussion by saying she’d be brief, because “I know commissioner Peterson has a lot to say.” She confirmed with Horne McGee that Head Start is free to those who enrolled. But is it open to people who could pay? she asked. Horne McGee explained that 10% of the families enrolled can be over the income level set by the federal Head Start program, but those are often families of children with disabilities, she said. The staff also uses that 10% for families whose income might be just a few dollars over the limit. Horne McGee said Washtenaw Head Start gets many request for families that want to pay to enroll, but they aren’t accepted, she said.

Ronnie Peterson then spoke at length, often receiving applause from the Head Start supporters. He described his own background, saying he started working when he was 10 and didn’t get any handouts. Head Start is an award-winning program and provides opportunities, he said, not handouts. He talked about his advocacy in fighting poverty, and recalled that commissioner Conan Smith’s grandfather, Al Wheeler, had led the county’s office of economic opportunity during its most progressive years.

Peterson said he’d advocate for Head Start all the way to the vote. When he was growing up, his parents didn’t eat until all their children had been fed, he recalled.  “We should not enjoy a budget adoption until the children are fed.”

Peterson characterized the county as planning to default on the Head Start program, in order for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) to take over. He said he didn’t realize those discussions had been going on, and he wondered what process had been started and at what level these discussions had been taking place.

Yousef Rabhi said he didn’t know what conversations had occurred. Rabhi noted that if the county decides to give up its status as federal grantee of the program, then it would be out of their hands. Even if the WISD is interested in taking over the program, there’s no guarantee that WISD would be selected, he said.

Peterson said he was upset at being left out of the loop, and he asked whether Rabhi was confirming that discussions had taken place. Rabhi replied that he wasn’t sure – he hadn’t attended any meetings with WISD, but it seemed that there might have been discussions, since the WISD had been mentioned so many times.

Peterson said it seemed that everyone in charge was out of the room. [County administrator Verna McDaniel didn't attend the working session, and at the time of Peterson's comment, board chair Conan Smith and Kelly Belknap, deputy county administrator, were not in the boardroom.] Peterson said he was concerned that this was being handled in a backroom process, adding that he had confronted the WISD superintendent about it. He said he had never played politics with children, and he found this offensive.

Referring to the $15,000 annual stipends that McDaniel had proposed several weeks ago for her top staff, Peterson asked “Where did that come from?” The county’s financial challenge doesn’t seem that great if money can be found for that, he said. [The stipends – which Peterson characterized as bonuses – had been part of a proposed administrative restructuring that McDaniel withdrew from the board's Sept. 21, 2011 agenda. She had planned to eliminate the position of deputy administrator, which has been vacant for several months, and distribute responsibilities among four other managers, who would receive a $15,000 stipend in addition to their regular salaries.]

Parents in the room that night probably don’t have time to go to PTA meetings, Peterson said, yet they came to the working session. They weren’t asking for handouts, he said, but just wanted to have an education for their children. The room should have been packed with advocates for children and early-childhood education, he said. Discussions about the future of Head Start should have been public, he said.

Wes Prater said that the budget information about Head Start has been public, and noted that in addition to $528,000 in general fund dollars that support the program this year, the 2012 county budget calls for another $528,000 to fund Head Start.  [No funding is budgeted for Head Start in 2013 – the county plans to relinquish its administration of the program that year.]

Peterson said it was a weird meeting that night, and there will be a Part 2 to the discussion. He wasn’t sure why people “on the payroll” weren’t in the room. He asked if Horne McGee had been asked to propose an alternative budget. No, she said, adding that the program has consistently made budget cuts over the years. Peterson said he anticipated a follow-up meeting on this issue.

As he had at a board meeting the previous night, Prater pointed out that 16 departments showed increases in their expenditures compared to 2011, totaling more than $6 million. Conan Smith, who had returned to his seat by this time, explained – as he had the previous night – that the increases relate primarily to higher amounts for each department’s cost allocation plan (CAP).  [The CAP sets a charge that’s levied on each county unit and designed to cover general costs like administration, technology, building use, and insurance, among other things.]

Smith said he wished that Peterson had remained in the room to hear this explanation – Peterson had left the room soon after Smith started speaking. Departments are not being overfunded, Smith said, and county revenues are declining. “This is a tight budget with no fat in it,” Smith said.

The budget projects revenues of $97.714 million in 2012 and $96.937 million in 2013, down from $101.25 million this year.

Prater contested Smith’s interpretation, insisting that 16 county departments were increasing their expenses by a total of $6.8 million, and that CAP accounted for only a portion of that. He accused Smith of “playing with numbers.”

Rolland Sizemore Jr. spoke up, noting that he sat on the Head Start board and it’s an excellent program. He said there might be ways to find additional funds, and pointed to the fact that many county buildings aren’t fully used. County staff might be able to consolidate – at the Zeeb Road service center, for example – and sell some buildings. It comes down to money, he said – that’s the issue in making these budget decisions.

At this point Shirley Beckley, who had spoken during public commentary, stood up and began addressing the board. Rahbi interrupted, saying she’d have the opportunity to speak at the meeting’s final public commentary. “I’m 70 years old and I’ll say something right now,” she replied. She recalled that at the board’s working session in the summer, when the Head Start program had been initially discussed, some commissioners had said they weren’t in the business of educating children. If they decided to get rid of the program, they should at least be honest, she said. “We’re not stupid.” She told Conan Smith to stop talking to them as if they were.

Present: Barbara Levin Bergman, Felicia Brabec, Leah Gunn, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Dan Smith, Conan Smith.

Absent: Rob Turner

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. 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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One Comment

  1. By Scratchingmy Head
    October 26, 2011 at 9:54 am | permalink

    Shirley Beckley. You go Girl!