School System Bids to Take Over Head Start

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Arlington school system is seeking to take over the county's Head Start program for disadvantaged children after the nonprofit organization that had run it for many years was closed in June in response to revelations of significant accounting lapses.

School officials said the transition would be a chance to improve coordination of preschool services for children from low-income families and other students.

The accounting troubles that led to the closure of the nonprofit Arlington Community Action Program surprised some county leaders. For four decades, ACAP had been a community fixture. It provided parenting classes, employment assistance and transportation for the elderly. It also operated the Head Start program with about $2 million a year in federal funds.

An audit of ACAP completed in June by the office of the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found $342,000 in Head Start spending that lacked sufficient documentation or was not allowed under federal grant guidelines. It also uncovered payroll taxes that had been withheld from employees but not reported to the Internal Revenue Service.

The audit was "clearly devastating," said Arlington County Board member Barbara A. Favola (D), who is also a member of ACAP's board. She said ACAP board members were caught off guard by the findings. "I was just flabbergasted," she said.

Channell Wilkins, director of the federal Office of Head Start, said federal audits usually are ordered after a local administrator's internal auditors uncover a problem. He said it was unusual for lapses to be so glaring that an administrator would be forced to step aside.

A federal contractor, the Community Development Institute, is running Head Start in Arlington until a permanent administrator is named. The school system has applied for the job, and a decision is expected within six months.

Head Start serves about 916,000 children nationwide to help prepare them for school. The program offers educational and health services to low-income families, with an eligibility cutoff of $21,000 in annual income for a family of four.

Nineteen percent of administrators nationwide are public school systems, and 15 percent are municipalities. The rest are nonprofit organizations. Even when a school system does not administer the program, Head Start classes are often held in public schools; three are in Arlington schools. The county's Head Start program has room for 293 children, Favola said, but only 164 are enrolled.

In Prince William, Prince George's and Loudoun counties, school systems run their local Head Start programs. In Fairfax County and Alexandria, the school systems have arrangements similar to what Arlington had. Montgomery County and its school system run their program jointly, and the D.C. system runs the District's program with nonprofit organizations.

Mark Johnston, Arlington's assistant superintendent for instruction, said the school system is eager to take over the program because it would enable the Head Start children to blend in with students in other preschool classes.

"We're trying to have a consistent, coherent pre-kindergarten experience for the kids," Johnston said, adding, "The sooner we get the children into our schools, the more academically successful they are."

Staff writers Maria Glod and Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.

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