Federal officials decided Thursday to take the reins of Pinellas County Head Start and will send in a team Monday to temporarily oversee the operation until a permanent solution is found.
They're also telling parents and teachers to carry on as usual. The shake-up is in management, not in the delivery of services.
"Head Start services are not going away," said Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, director of the Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C. "Our biggest priority (is to) make sure there is no disruption in services."
The decision to take over came after a year of controversy and complaints about the Pinellas program. A year ago, a federal audit found questionable financial practices that included using Head Start funds to pay non-Head Start costs and using Head Start money to make non-Head Start loans to related people.
Since then, Fuentes said, her office has received complaints that supplies were lacking and emails from parents concerned about the program.
In December, the Pinellas Opportunity Council, which accepts the $15 million in federal Head Start funds and funnels them to Pinellas' program, sent a letter to the regional Head Start office in Atlanta saying it did not want to continue providing services after the Sept. 30 end of this fiscal year. The letter cited funding uncertainties and increased program requirements as reasons for the decision.
This week, Pinellas Head Start executive director Juanita Heinzen came under fire for allegedly spending thousand of dollars at the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa for a training retreat. That prompted U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, to call for an investigation into the organization's spending.
Heinzen said Thursday that she was unsure why there was an outcry over the Safety Harbor retreat.
"We did not do anything different than we've always done," Heinzen said.
The organization has been doing retreats for years, she said, and many have been "praised as excellent." She declined to immediately release copies of receipts for the Safety Harbor session. Fuentes said she'll also be sending a team to look at the local Head Start books "to see how the monies are spent."
The time line is a bit sketchy. A team from Community Development Institute Head Start, a Colorado-based company that specializes in interim management, will come in on Monday. Shortly after, Head Start will select another agency to oversee the Head Start program. That will come as part of a competitive process from agencies that want to take over.
One proposal is sure to come from the Pinellas County School District. Superintendent John Stewart has said he would like to bring the program in-house. And, Thursday, Castor called him to tell him to get his proposal ready.
"We have our people standing ready," Stewart said.
Castor, who pushed for a quick conclusion to the allegations swirling around the program, said she was pleased with the speed of the federal officials' reaction. The situation, she said, will give everyone a chance "to make some very beneficial changes for the children." She was appalled, she said, by the allegations of wasted money, which could have been better spent on children who need services.
"I think this is very positive," Castor said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8450.