Norwalk Housing’s Head Start may need city funds

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Gail Petersen, grantee specialist from the Region 1 Head Start Training and Technical Assistance Network operating through UMass, instructs Norwalk Housing Authority leaders in Head Start program basics Wednesday.

NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Housing Authority dove head first into the Head Start pool Wednesday as federal representatives came to town to show the local agency the program’s operational ropes.

There was one aspect in which the NHA didn’t need help – a $1 million-plus request from the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

That request is an attempt to bridge the gap between the number of children that have been enrolled in Norwalk Head Start and the number of children that are actually paid for by federal and state grants. While Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) had been serving 232 children in Head Start, only 177 have been funded for the past two years – a prime reason the agency is in the near-bankrupt state that it’s in, NEON officials have said. There is also an issue with keeping Head Start going through the summer, something NEON has done but for which there is only partial funding, NHA Executive Director Curtis Law said.

Norwalk Finance Director Thomas Hamilton said city staff are studying the situation and have not yet nailed down the amount of money needed to provide services for the 55 students who are currently unfunded. He expressed skepticism about the $1 million-plus request, which came in a “few weeks ago.”

“We’re not prepared to say that that full amount of money is needed to do everything which they want to do at this point,” he said.

The BET has about $500,000 of room left under the budget cap set by the Common Council with its current proposed 2014-15 operating budget.

“If the city does not agree to come up with any funding it’s not a situation where children who are currently in the program would have to be removed from the program. but it would mean that the Housing Authority would need to cut back the total number of slots that are available,” Hamilton said Wednesday to BET members. “So the Housing Authority has come in and suggested that they would like the city to consider providing funding so that they can continue to serve the higher number of students.”

Hamilton also reviewed recent history: Two years ago, when the BET was faced with a need to cut $2.5 million from the city’s operating budget, it decided not to give NEON the $1.3 million in funding it had been getting. This was done in the wake of a damning federal audit. NEON did not get that money in the last operating budget, either.

Law said that when NHA got the funding for 162 children, it was under the impression that the money formerly given to NEON had been held in escrow. It was not. The initial request sent to the city was made with that in mind, he said.

Hamilton said there have been amendments. The latest request, made Wednesday, was for $598,860.

More meetings are planned. Mayor Harry Rilling said conversations will involve the Early Childhood Council, as officials try to find out what grant money is available, perhaps through School Readiness funding. “We’re trying to sort that out,” he said.

Law said it is difficult to know how much money will be needed for programs because the NHA has no history to look back on.

“We have not been able to get any records on what the expenses have been,” he said.

As an example, he cited a $20,000 bill the Housing Authority just got for a “long-standing problem with the drainage” in one of the facilities. “It is extremely difficult to say with any certainty what the expenses have been,” he said.

The only certainty is the salaries the teachers have been paid, but, “We think they may have been overstaffed,” he said of NEON’s program.

He also said the NHA is rethinking the situation – perhaps it would be better to serve fewer children with higher quality teachers, he said.

“We need to look at the quality of the staff. They are good people. But when you look at $24,000 to $25,000 a year for a teacher, you’re probably not getting the best quality for those kinds of dollars,” he said. “One of the things we would like to see over a period of time is an increase in the quality and the competency of the teachers themselves to make an impact on these kids. It’s extremely important.”

Law came to the BET straight from a Housing Authority Board of Commissioners meeting where two officials from the Administration for Children and Families and a representative from the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute were holding their first training session for commissioners.

Beginning steps in the process were the basics – how the program would be governed and what factors could get the agency in trouble.

Gail Petersen, grantee specialist from the Region 1 Head Start Training and Technical Assistance Network operating through the University of Massachusetts, and ACF Program Specialist Marina Winkler told commissioners that the biggest change in Head Start is that the grants now run for five years. As long as the agency is running a “high quality” program, the grant will not be up for recompetition.

It’s important to do a developmental screening within the first 45 days of a child’s enrollment – it’s one of the things programs get caught on, they said.

They were talking to an audience that appeared to be dealing with something akin to stage fright.

NHA Chairman Cesar Ramirez emphasized how important the training was, as the group was completely new. “We need guidance,” he said.

Petersen suggested they read the program and performance standards and said she guaranteed the authority is already doing everything necessary.

“If you read the complexity and the comprehensive nature of the services that are provided you will never second guess having this grant again. You will be so proud of the work that you do,” she said.

Law asked for information about NEON’s mistakes so they wouldn’t be repeated.

Winkler said NHA had gone through a competitive grant process and demonstrated the competency needed.

“We vetted this,” Winkler said. “We said this was OK.”


4 responses to “Norwalk Housing’s Head Start may need city funds”

  1. CT Patriot

    This whole thing is a disgrace and waste of money, just another form of welfare, and our city govt is scared to stand up against it for fear of being branded racists, same movie different characters, so they just continue to pour money down this toilet.

  2. Bill

    What about means testing the parents of these kids who don’t qualify for federal funding? Why must the taxpayers pay when their parents are probably getting cash under the table?

  3. lightning

    @Bill and CT Patriots. What terrible statements to say about Norwalk’s children serviced through this program. Their are plenty of success stories that came out of this program. ALL CHILDREN DESERVE A CHANCE FOR SUCCESS. Think of the children. They ARE OUR FUTURE!!!

  4. Bill

    @lightning, you wouldn’t means test the parents? Then you should volunteer your income to pay for services that aren’t needed because these people have money, they just choose to stick the rest of us with the bill.

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