Public should expect honest answers from Head Start
West Tennessee Head Start has answers but won’t give them up.
We have questions, too. We’ve posed them to Head Start officials at the state and federal levels, and we’ve yet to get answers.
The Head Start program based at McKenzie is a member agency of the nonprofit Northwest Tennessee Economic Development Council. The program purports to serve children of low-income families in 13 West Tennessee counties. The program is funded by a $10.2 million annual grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The money is channeled through the state to NWTEDC and thence to the Head Start program.
And yes, it’s taxpayer money. It’s not private industry, it’s not a private business, it’s not somebody’s exclusive club. It’s a public entity and public money fuels the train. The public has a vested interest in its activities.
Which means the public has a right to ask questions and expect not only to get answers but get honest answers.
But that hasn’t happened yet. Don’t look for it to happen, either. That outfit, from McKenzie to the Atlanta regional office to the Washington office, has circled its wagons.
In this case, the Huns at the gates are armed with nosy questions instead of bows and arrows.
Earlier this year, an impulse to ask questions — call it a “need to know” — was the catalyst for an uproar at Head Start.
Ms. Wofford and two other Head Start employees — James Churchwell and Tiffany Moseley — got uppity and asked a lot of nosy questions of administrator Pamela Castleman. Too, they made calls to the Atlanta office and Washington office about certain questionable activities. Also, Churchwell made phone calls to the nine county mayors who make up the NWTEDC board of directors executive committee. He is alleged to have told “His Honors” some very interesting stuff.
But, alas, each of them paid dearly. They not only lost their jobs and were much villified, Churchwell was found to have colon cancer. The NWTEDC personnel committee voted to officially fire him. Head Start wanted to take away his insurance benefits, but the executive council restored them for a year.
All this, all because the two women and Churchwell had questions.
Looking back, one could conclude they were certainly justified in what they did. On April 13, because the Atlanta regional office threatened to cut off Head Start funds, the NWTEDC board voted to hire Union City accounting firm Alexander, Thompson and Arnold to do an immediate audit. ATA issued its report in mid-May and it was swiftly condemned by Head Start.
On Aug. 13, a federal team from HHS in Washington visited the McKenzie headquarters to have a look-see for themselves. Their report is due any day now. You can believe they’ll protect their own turf. So look for the report to be a modern day fairy tale.
A lawsuit against Head Start pending in U.S. District Court in Jackson has not been set for trial. Another lawsuit waiting in the wings alleges mischief about non-payment of employees’ overtime.
Here are few we’ve asked of Head Start officials:
• Where does Head Start get authority to pay college tuition for welfare mothers? What makes welfare mothers so special? How about all those working non-welfare mothers out earning minimum wage salaries?
• Define the term “parent training” and how Head Start funds were expended on it.
• By what authority does Head Start spend federal dollars for “higher education courses” for employees?
Mrs. Wofford has a few questions, too.
She said last December, a parent training conference was held in New York City and Mrs. Castleman took her secretary, Katie Foster and Katherine Anderson, an administrative assistant in the Human Resources department, on the trip. But she did not take a Head Start parent.
“They said they couldn’t find a parent who wanted to go,” Mrs. Wofford said. “There’s over 1,300 children in the Head Start program, and not one parent wanted a free trip to New York City? I find that hard to believe. They just did not ask any parents.”
She asserts the trip was paid for out of the Head Start parent training fund.
“That trip to New York is just one of the things I could tell you about. It goes a lot deeper. They are not going to answer your questions,” she said.
She said she’s asked for answers from U.S. Sen. Bob Corker and Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, but both efforts were futile.
“They’ve all circled the wagons. We think the only one able to get answers is the State Comptroller’s office.”
Published in The Messenger on 11.09.07