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Published: Saturday, 5/26/2012


Head Start battle

Shouting and keeping secrets are characteristic of many 3 to 5-year-olds, including Head Start students. They should not be characteristic of adults.

Yet that is the face leaders of the Economic Opportunity and Planning Association of Greater Toledo presented this week, as it battled to keep the local grant for the federally funded program for disadvantaged children.


EOPA has run Head Start in Lucas County -- sometimes with little oversight or accountability -- since the 1960s. The agency is tasked with preparing children from poor families to enter kindergarten. It also provides important health-care, nutritional, and social services.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decided that EOPA and 131 other agencies that run Head Start programs across the United States weren't doing a good enough job. For the first time, EOPA must compete for the funding of $13 million a year.

Leaders of the local agency have not done enough to make the case that they deserve to continue to educate the county's most at-risk children. EOPA has a history of problems. In 1989, the local Head Start program ran out of money and had to close down for 10 days. Federal officials advanced EOPA $200,000 to get it through the fiscal year.

Twice in recent years, EOPA was in danger of losing its license to transport students because of incidents in which children were forgotten on buses. In 2008, the agency board was fractured by fighting over who should replace longtime director Oscar Griffith. In the four years since then, it has had three directors. Another power struggle is brewing.

Since the announcement of the federal decision to open competition for the local Head Start grant, EOPA has insisted that it has done a good job for five decades. If there are problems, agency officials say, the response should be to strengthen EOPA, not to remove its main source of funding.

EOPA dismissed data from Toledo Public Schools that suggested its Head Start graduates are no more ready to enter school than area disadvantaged children who did not enroll in Head Start. But it hasn't produced data to disprove the TPS claim.

During the 1989 crisis, the agency's board held illegal closed-door sessions until a judge forced it to comply with Ohio's open-meetings law. This week, board members were at it again as they scrambled to figure out how to prepare a winning grant application by Aug. 14.

TPS plans to apply to run Head Start. School officials argue they could integrate the program easily with the district's current early childhood programs. But there are legitimate concerns that the district, in the first year of needed reforms and with an important tax campaign to run, has enough on its plate.

An operator of local, for-profit day care centers also has expressed interest in the federal grant. There may be others.

When EOPA's board holds private meetings of dubious legality, punctuated by raised voices behind closed doors, it poses the question: Can EOPA be trusted with the futures of poor children if it can't show it can run its own affairs credibly?

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