Following a closed session, the board heard from Nichelle Boyd-Ernst, a Department of Health and Human Services program specialist who is the Georgia lead in relation to Head Start. Head Start is a program designed to help children in low-income families, from birth to 5 years old, increase their readiness to enter school.
The Tallatoona-operated Head Start program, which covers Bartow, Cobb, Douglas, Floyd, Gordon, Haralson, Paulding and Polk counties, is not in compliance due to board procedures and actions, Boyd-Ernst said.
“But because the board is not functioning the way a Head Start board is supposed to function, that can be what we call an immediate deficiency. As you know, or you may not know, but an immediate deficiency puts your agency on the re-competition list. So that means you have to re-compete for your program again and you just got your programming back and you’d have to go back through that process all over again,” she said. “... But what we’re seeing, we have an agency that has to re-compete a second time. We’re not supporting the second application as we might have supported the first.”
Boyd-Ernst said an immediate deficiency would force the Tallatoona board to come up with an action plan within 10 days. Alternatively, she continued, the board could shut the program down. However, she believed putting the board, staff and parents through training was the best option.
“There are a lot of things that we can do to move the program along,” Boyd-Ernst said. “We don’t have the luxury of having a year to get the program where it needs to be. We just don’t have that, because then I’ll be forced to do an immediate deficiency, or something else will happen. We just don’t have that time. I can’t say I’ll give you one year to get your program together, because I can’t. What I can do is give you time to develop the board ... new policies and procedures, training, training the board, training the parents, training for staff on what your roles and responsibilities are.”
The lack of training has led to the problems the Tallatoona program has experienced, Boyd-Ernst believed. She added that Tallatoona was not the first Head Start program to have such difficulties and face the prospect of losing its program.
Parental complaints about the Head Start program have been ongoing, Boyd-Ernst said. Board members later described how complaints would bypass both the Policy Council and the board itself and go straight to the program’s Washington D.C. office before filtering back to the local level. Other board members wondered if the complaints were coming from people who would be unsatisfied regardless of any changes, or if the complaints were being made despite improvements.
Boyd-Ernst said the complaints were “constant.”
“If you get a complaint, you may address that complaint, but then this other person has the same complaint, another person has the same complaint. So there’s something going on. There’s a sense that something’s not working, so then you have to address the reason why these complaints are so common,” she said.
By an 8-3 vote the Tallatoona board passed Chair Paris Thornton’s proposal that calls for giving the board and Executive Director Debbie Schmell until March 1, 2015, to create an action plan. During that time, the proposal states, training and new policies and procedures will be put into place for the entire organization. The proposal, as approved, also called for the hiring of a Head Start director or consultant during the transition period. Tallatoona does not have a Head Start director at the moment, which Boyd-Ernst said was required.
A progress report on the boards and Schmell’s progress must be made at each meeting. Schmell must also report to the board on any hirings, firings, or departmental changes and meet with each county manager or commissioner to ensure every county has a representative on the board.
After the meeting Thornton said the proposal was necessary and she was glad it passed. She acknowledged the “emotion within the board,” when it came to the decision, but she believed it was time for the board to act.
“[Boyd-Ernst]’s given us the option to go through all the training. I’m not sure all the staff will still be here at the start of this training. I’m not saying anybody’s going to be terminated or let go. I’m saying this is a start, and if we don’t try to get back on track, then our funding is going to be in jeopardy,” Thornton said.