1. Opinion

Pinellas Head Start on better path for taxpayers, families

Published May 11, 2012

Done right, federally funded Head Start preschool programs address one of the biggest challenges in public education: Low-income children are far more likely to come to kindergarten without the basic skills needed to learn. But Pinellas County Head Start has apparently lost sight of that clear-eyed mission. An entrenched and entitled leadership appears to have grown accustomed to wasting taxpayer dollars. Federal officials are expected Monday to take over the agency and launch a search for a permanent replacement operator. That's good for the families served by Head Start and the taxpayers who fund it.

News reports over the past two weeks — the first by WTSP reporter Mike Deeson — have highlighted the low-profile agency's dubious spending, which first came to light a year ago in a damning audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

Though no criminal wrongdoing was alleged, auditors criticized Head Start director Juanita Heinzen for hiring her daughter and fiance for a related nonprofit agency that gets federal funding for marriage and life skills training; for improperly loaning money between the two agencies; for letting staffers drive agency cars home without paying for personal mileage; and listing $31,740 in training costs under program expenses, not administrative costs that are subject to a federal cap.

Deeson's May 2 news report showed him confronting Heinzen about $6,000 the agency spent recently on food for a three-day training session at Safety Harbor Resort & Spa. Heizen, who earns a combined $132,000 from the two federally funded agencies, made no apologies. She said the annual expense at an off-site location was needed because employees would be interrupted too frequently at their office, which has a large meeting space.

That wasn't good enough for the Pinellas' Juvenile Welfare Board's executive director, who said she anticipates halting her agency's $82,000 in supplemental funding. And U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, fired off a letter to HHS encouraging it to exercise its discretion under the law to immediately pull the agency's contract. That's what happened Thursday. HHS announced it would arrive Monday to take control and begin preparing for a bid process to find a permanent vendor.

The agency had been anticipating a transition sometime this year. In December, the Pinellas Opportunity Council that accepts the $15 million in annual federal money and funnels it to the local Head Start program had given notice it would not be seeking to continue beyond Sept. 30.

Federal officials insist that Pinellas Head Start families, which include about 1,800 children, will see little disruption next week, if any. And the good news is that at least one credible bidder to take over the program permanently has already emerged: Pinellas County Schools. Superintendent John Stewart thinks ensuring that Head Start does a quality job is one of the district's best long-term strategies for improving student performance, including high school graduation rates.

Most important, however, Head Start's mission for getting children ready for school is back on the front burner, where it belongs.