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Officials seek new deal with Head Start

For 20 years, the arrangement has gone smoothly: In a small building in the North Boulevard Homes public housing development, Hillsborough County has rented space for a Head Start program serving disadvantaged preschool children. Now, Tampa Housing Authority officials are questioning whether North Boulevard residents are getting a fair deal.

They want the county either to pay a higher rent _ more than seven times the current rent _ or promise to give enrollment priority to children living at North Boulevard Homes or other public housing complexes.

Audley Evans, the authority's executive director, presented a proposed lease to housing commissioners last week. He said the county should either pay a monthly rent of $1,712, the market value of the space, or abide by the new conditions.

But county officials, learning of the proposal Monday, said they could not afford the higher rent.The county now pays $230 a month for the space, where 45 disadvantaged preschool children attend the program.

A third of the children in the program live in North Boulevard Homes.

"We could not pay; there's no way," said Assistant County Administrator Pat Bean.

She said the county may be able to follow the board's proposed priorities, providing that the housing authority understood that Head Start, a federally financed program, must abide by federal criteria for admissions.

To qualify for the county's six Head Start programs, parents must meet federal poverty guidelines and either be employed or enrolled in a school or training program, Bean said. The Hillsborough school system uses different guidelines for its Head Start programs.

"If they understand we must first enroll only those (whose parents) meet the poverty guidelines and are enrolled in school or working, I don't know that we would have a problem with a series of priorities," said Bean, who said she had not yet seen the proposed lease.

She also said the county would not agree to remove children from the program in mid-year in order to accommodate North Boulevard residents.

The lease discussions came a week after a group of parents of children attending the Head Start program complained publicly about conditions at the building on W Main Street. The parents were upset about a trash bin behind the building that was attracting flies and rats and creating an unpleasant odor.

Michelle Patty, one of the parents, said she thought the new lease proposal was a retaliatory move against the parents.

"It's just vindictiveness because all of a sudden we raised this row," Patty said. "This is one of the few government programs that is working for the people. It's going to hurt everyone if it has to move."

Evans said the lease discussions had nothing to do with the parents' complaints. He said the county has not paid rent to the housing authority since the fall, when the county's lease for the Head Start program expired.

"We're not trying to throw them out or anything," Evans said. "If the residents are giving up their auditorium, they should have priority."