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County wants to take over Pinellas Head Start program

Pinellas County Head Start is in a world of trouble:

The Juvenile Welfare Board plans to withdraw its funding.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is calling for a federal investigation into the thousands of dollars spent for a training session held at the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa.

School superintendent John Stewart wants the Pinellas school district to take over the program. The idea has Castor's support.

Castor's call for the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was sparked by allegations that the agency misused money for the training session.

Those allegations come a year after an inspector general's audit criticized Pinellas Head Start's handling of federal funding. Among the problems the inspector general found were two trips to Las Vegas for training at a total cost of about $13,569 that were charged to the wrong account.

"It's the pattern," Castor said of her decision to call in the inspector general. "The audit of last year certainly should have sent a message to the Head Start (leadership). … It appears they didn't learn their lesson.

"It pains me when you read these expenses going for meals and high-priced hotels when I know there are thousands of children in the Tampa Bay area on the waiting list for Head Start,'' she said. "I believe in Head Start and I hate to see one penny wasted."

PCHS executive director Juanita Heinzen declined to comment.

Head Start is a national program directed at low-income preschool-age children and their families. The program awards grants to local groups to provide educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to those enrolled in the program.

Most of PCHS' budget of about $15  million comes from those federal dollars. But PCHS also gets some funding from elsewhere, such as the Juvenile Welfare Board, which gets most of its money from property taxes. This year, the board gave the agency $82,000 as a match for other funding for its Early Head Start program, which targets low-income pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers.

Board executive director Gay Lancaster said she will recommend that her board not fund the program next year.

"We have reviewed their financial management issues and feel a level of discomfort with what we've seen from our review of their audit," Lancaster said. "The audit kind of speaks for itself."

Stewart, the Pinellas superintendent, says he has a better idea — let the school system take over. About every five years, he said, the government asks for new proposals from agencies that want to run the program. That cycle is coming around for the Pinellas Head Start contract.

"When the opportunity presents itself, I fully intend to submit a response," Stewart said. "The Pinellas County schools could do it in an exemplary manner."

Castor said she believes that having the school system run Head Start would provide more transparency and accountability. That's the kind of system Hillsborough had when she served on the County Commission.

"It worked very well," Castor said.

It worked so well, Castor said, she wants to see if the change process can be sped up "when there are certain improprieties."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

County wants to take over Pinellas Head Start program 05/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 10, 2012 12:24am]
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