Pinellas school district loses bid to run Head Start program

Published May 2, 2013

The Pinellas County School District won't be the county's provider for Head Start and Early Head Start services.

A $12 million grant to run the federal program for low-income children has been given to Lutheran Services Florida, a nonprofit organization based in Tampa.

The announcement, made by Lutheran Services, is something of a setback for Pinellas Schools. District officials have been pushing to get more involved in early childhood education programs because about one-third of students show up each year unprepared for kindergarten.

Melanie Marquez Parra, a district spokeswoman, said the school system hasn't learned yet why its application was denied by federal Head Start officials. But she said the grant won't affect plans for the Lew Williams Project, an early childhood initiative that targets many of the same children eligible for Head Start and Early Head Start.

The project — named for the late Lew Williams, a former School Board member and district administrator — will start with about 110 students at pTEC St. Petersburg in the 2013-14 school year. It will serve students ages 1 to 4. Head Start and Early Head Start programs are for infants to age 5.

Samuel Sipes, president and CEO of Lutheran Services Florida, said in a statement that the organization was "thrilled" to get the grant and "we look forward to helping children in Pinellas gain the skills they need to enter school ready to succeed."

Applications were opened up last year for the county's Head Start services after the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services released an audit in 2011 that found relatives of executives had been hired as consultants and federal dollars had been mishandled at Pinellas Head Start. The audit was directed to Pinellas Opportunity Council, an umbrella group that oversaw Pinellas Head Start.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego released a statement congratulating Lutheran Services of Florida. "We look forward to a positive relationship with the organization as we all work toward the betterment of our community through educational opportunities for all," the statement said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.