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Published: Thursday, 1/10/2013

Fresh start for EOPA

James Powell will step down in June as head of the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo. His departure will give the embattled agency that runs Lucas County’s Head Start program a much-needed chance to make a fresh start.

Mr. Powell has been EOPA’s chief executive officer since 2009. He was deputy director of the agency from 2001 to 2008. In addition to running Head Start, the agency provides important health-care, nutritional, and social services.

The agency has been mired in controversy for several years. Its problems came to a head in 2011, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that EOPA wasn’t doing a good enough job preparing children from poor families to enter kindergarten and would have to reapply for its Head Start grant.

EOPA has run Head Start in Lucas County — sometimes with little oversight or accountability — since the 1960s. Head Start accounts for $13 million of the agency’s $17.2 million annual budget. When it began to look like EOPA might lose the federal grant, it was obvious that something had to change — beginning at the top.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. In September, EOPA’s sometimes-rancorous board of directors voted to review the agency’s structure and to begin “succession planning.”

But Mr. Powell didn’t go easily. The board offered a $50,000 severance package. Internal documents report that he wanted an additional $40,000 to $50,000 to step aside — outrageous, if true, given the organization’s mission.

Fortunately the board, which had been split on whether he should be replaced, had enough. Mr. Powell will step down no later than June 30, apparently without a severance package.

EOPA could know in a matter of days whether it has retained the Head Start grant. However that federal decision turns out, the task of finding Mr. Powell’s replacement should begin immediately. The goal should be to find someone with broad experience in social service, especially in programs such as Head Start.

The ideal candidate also would be someone who has not been tainted by EOPA’s problems, failures, divisions, and power struggles. That likely means a national search.

How board members go about this process will set the tone for the future of the agency. They need to get it right.


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