Choices with big stakes for Toledo’s poor

Cookie Monster from ‘Sesame Street’ leads  Toledo Head Start students in a singalong game as parents and teachers snap photos at Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Cookie Monster from ‘Sesame Street’ leads Toledo Head Start students in a singalong game as parents and teachers snap photos at Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

On Monday, leaders of Toledo’s largest black-run social service agency could make decisions that will greatly affect the future of the organization, the 2,000-plus poor children who are enrolled in the preschool program it operates, and the 300 people who work for the agency.

You might say the stakes are high.

For nearly a half-century, the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo has played a central part in local efforts to fight poverty and empower minority citizens. EOPA runs the Head Start program for Toledo and Lucas County, which aims to prepare disadvantaged children from the ages of 3 to 5 to succeed in school and in life.

EOPA’s $13 million a year grant from the federal government to operate Head Start accounts for more than two-thirds of its revenue. The agency also oversees programs that administer heating aid to low-income households, promote fatherhood, provide home repairs, and work with seniors.

In recent years, EOPA has been riven by factional disputes that have weakened its effectiveness. There have been questions about how the agency has spent federal dollars and how it has followed (or not) open-meetings law.

The association’s embattled chief executive, James Powell, has attracted criticism for what detractors call his autocratic leadership. But Mr. Powell also has staunch defenders who insist he has worked hard and successfully to help this community’s most vulnerable residents.

Earlier this month, the EOPA board voted to force Mr. Powell to give up his job by the end of June. At tomorrow’s board meeting, dissident board members will seek to install their own candidate as board chairman and to fire Mr. Powell immediately.

This internal power struggle may not mean much to people who aren’t directly involved. But all Toledoans — especially the hard-pressed families that rely on the vital services EOPA provides — have an interest in its outcome.

“The agency is in total disarray, lacking leadership,” says Sylvester Gould, a Toledo developer and lawyer who is leading the effort to oust Mr. Powell, whom he formerly supported. “This is not going to fly anymore. It’s time for a new start.”

Adds Rev. D.L. Perryman, the pastor of Center of Hope Baptist Church in Toledo, who seeks to head the EOPA board: “There is an effort to save one person’s job at the expense of the entire organization. [Mr. Powell’s] leadership style is authoritarian and patriarchal. There’s a culture of secrecy, and no accountability.”

Mr. Powell told me late last week that he was “not aware” of the effort to compel him to step down right away. He declined to respond to criticism of his management of EOPA, saying: “I don’t seek to personalize issues or get into public squabbles. I’d just as soon have my performance speak for itself.”

His adversaries say Mr. Powell’s scheduled departure in June will not come soon enough. By early spring, they warn, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may yank EOPA’s Head Start grant unless the agency can show evidence of major reform. “They don’t want lip service,” Mr. Gould says. “They want to see action.”

Mr. Powell questions whether his critics “have any substantive grounds for believing” that keeping the grant requires his immediate departure. But for the first time, federal regulators are forcing EOPA to compete for the Head Start contract. Toledo Public Schools also seeks to run the local program.

A recent federal review of the Toledo program identified eight areas of “high risk” in its operation. They include such concerns as a low number of local Head Start children screened for developmental issues, problems with providing dental examinations, and some gaps and delays in financial reporting.

Mr. Powell says he has not formally received the federal assessment, but claims EOPA has promptly responded to regulators’ concerns in the past. He notes that the Head Start program’s scores on the effectiveness of its classrooms “have met or exceeded the national average.”

“We put in a competitive grant proposal,” he says. “By far, we are the best ones to continue the program. We have been good stewards of money, our program has done well. I think we stand a very, very good chance” of keeping the Head Start grant.

To support their application to take over Head Start, TPS leaders offer statistics that they say show that children who go through EOPA’s program do no better in school than those who don’t. EOPA officials counter that the school district is failing to sustain the gains that children in their program achieve.

If EOPA loses Head Start, the Rev. Perryman says, “it’s not likely that the agency will survive.” Mr. Gould adds: “You could have 300 people hitting the street. Folks are going to be crying because they lost their jobs.”

Mr. Powell disagrees. “We don’t look forward to losing the lion’s share of our revenue,” he says, “but we operate a number of other programs.”

Mr. Gould claims to have assembled at least 11 votes on the 21-member EOPA board to elevate the Rev. Perryman and to fire Mr. Powell. But he concedes several board members remain “on the fence.”

Whatever happens Monday, EOPA needs to attract a top-notch executive as its new CEO. Given its internal problems, that likely will require going outside the agency and conducting a national search. It won’t be easy; the Rev. Perryman says a potential local candidate told him: “I wouldn’t be part of that cesspool.”

This community needs strong minority-run organizations that use their economic and political power effectively on behalf of Toledoans who lack such influence. EOPA has fulfilled that role responsibly in the past and can do so again, once it fixes its problems.

It has to heal itself, because Toledo would be poorer without it.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

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