WHILE bickering, poor judgment and planning, and lack of follow-through are expected in the 3-to-5-year-olds served by Lucas County's Head Start program, they are not desirable traits in the people running the education program for the children of low-income families.
The Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo is in debt to the Ohio Department of Education to the tune of $585,500. That's what's left over from more than $650,000 the agency borrowed from the state a few years ago to fund an early-learning initiative. But according to interim director James Powell, EOPA failed to sign up enough students for the program. That led to the loss of a state grant to administer the program, and the start-up funds must be paid back out of revenues it would normally use for programs for 30,000 families in Lucas County it currently serves.
Mr. Powell blamed the failure on the paperwork requirements for parents and the presence of another provider that offered the same program. But these are not adequate excuses. An agency that's been in the business for more than 40 years ought to be adept at helping parents deal with burdensome paperwork as well as evaluating potential competition.
Now, the agency is in the first year of a 10-year repayment plan that, according to Andre Washington, a staff representative with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, has contributed to frozen worker salaries and delays in purchase of textbooks and computers.
This has occurred against a backdrop of infighting among EOPA board members over who will replace longtime executive director Oscar Griffith, who died last year after leading the association for more than 30 years. With an annual budget of $16 million, including $12 million in federal funding for the Head Start program, EOPA apparently was a plum worth picking. Things settled down after five people on the 18-member board resigned in August and September but the board has yet to complete its search for a permanent leader.
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time EOPA has made headlines for the wrong reasons. On several occasions, both federal and state officials have threatened to withhold funds because of various problems. Most serious were federal allegations in 1993 of harsh treatment of children and poor classroom conditions and state claims the next year that the agency, among other things, was providing no individual instruction and few opportunities for children to play outside.
You only get one chance to change the life of a 3-year-old for the better. Blow it and providing a "head start" to the now 4-year-old becomes just that much harder.
For the sake of the children they're supposed to help climb out of poverty, EOPA must put its house in order.
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