Federal audit faults D.C.'s Head Start

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The D.C. schools' Head Start program does not have the capacity to manage or account for the millions in federal dollars that it receives because of financial and organizational problems, a new audit by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concludes.

But school officials said Monday that the audit's findings, based on an investigation conducted more than a year ago, have been addressed.

A "limited scope" review, conducted by the department's inspector general, found that the $13 million program, which is projected this year to serve nearly 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds in the District, could not account for more than $300,000 in administrative and training expenses between 2007 and 2009.

The program also was consistently late during that period in submitting required financial status reports to the federal government. One semi-annual report submitted in February 2008 was 241 days late.

The report describes problems with governance of the program, which is supposed to be overseen by an appointed board. The school system did not have a functioning board in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, the audit said. It said that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee appointed four new members to the board in the summer of 2009 but that at the time of the investigation, a first meeting had not been set.

"Based on our assessment, we believe the DCPS Head Start program currently does not have the capacity to manage and account for federal funds and is not capable of operating a Head Start program in accordance with federal regulations," the audit said.

D.C. schools spokeswoman Safiya Simmons said that stronger controls have been put in place since the period when HHS investigators were active, which was between June and August of 2009. Major staff and leadership changes, including the hiring of a new program director, have tightened the operation. Its last five financial status reports have been filed in a timely manner, officials said. A recent letter from federal Head Start officials concluded that Rhee has sufficient decision-making authority to meet the legal requirements of a governing board.

Simmons also said that a recent $11 million grant from Health and Human Services to help launch a major expansion of the District Head Start program indicates that the city still has the department's confidence.

"We remain dedicated to quality Head Start and early childhood programs," Simmons said.

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