Wednesday, July 27, 2011

'Abysmal' conditions finally addressed in Charleston Head Start

Apparently, while our esteemed decision-makers in Columbia were trying to decide how much of our treasury should be offered to corporate interests in the form of tax breaks, and while our governor was doing her part by vetoing funding for public education, the littlest children of Charleston were attending "abysmal" Head Start facilities.

And the vote by Charleston's city leaders to spend the money necessary to resolve the problems was a contested vote: One voted no, and two weren't present.

Second verse, same as the first.

Some Charleston County children in Head Start programs will be moved this year from "abysmal" facilities into clean, safe spaces after the school board agreed on Tuesday to spend up to $1.1 million to make that happen.

The board agreed in a 6-1 vote to use some money from a capital fund for major maintenance projects and spend it on the construction needed to ready school buildings for Head Start students. Board member Elizabeth Kandrac voted against the majority, and board members Chris Collins and Elizabeth Moffly weren't present during the telephonic board meeting.

The decision to transfer those funds means other district projects will be affected, such as reducing the scope of a proposed retention pond at Wando High School and delaying the installation of temperature controls in all schools. The district had been anticipating receiving $3.9 million in start-up funds from Head Start to improve its facilities, but local officials recently learned they only would be receiving $600,000. That money wasn't enough to do all the needed work, which prompted Tuesday's action. Officials plan to document the total cost and ask Head Start for reimbursement later.

"It's very disappointing," said Lerah Lee, executive director of early childhood education. "We followed up and we worked with our (Head Start) program specialist to develop the start-up budget. ... We saw the horrible conditions, so we really felt strongly that they were going to follow through with providing the funds."

The school district earlier this year won a $6.5 million grant to serve about 1,000 3- to 5-year-olds through Head Start, a federal program that offers comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parental involvement services to low-income children and their families. An interim group had been administering those services because the previous agency doing so misspent federal funds.

The previous group overseeing Head Start had been leasing spaces at more than a dozen sites in the county, and Charleston school leaders decided to review the physical conditions of each center.

They said the results were shocking. They found classrooms that didn't have emergency exits, bathrooms with multiple toilets and no partitions, and a building with a leaky roof, broken air conditioner and serious mold problems.

Chief Financial and Operations Officer Mike Bobby as well as Chief Operations Officer Bill Lewis used the word "abysmal" to describe some of the spaces.

"We discovered a lot of things that were not as they should be in terms of the standards for cleanliness and safety," said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. "This is really an improvement over the environment that previously existed for these youngsters."

The district plans to use only three of those leased sites next year. The majority of Head Start programs will be in district schools, which officials said will lower per-pupil costs at under-used schools and go a long way toward meeting the grant's requirement to contribute $1.7 million in in-kind services annually.

McGinley said it also will give families a chance to see the quality programs being offered in local schools and potentially boost their future enrollment.

And we wonder how we got to where we are.

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