Group could lose Head Start funding

Jun. 21, 2014 @ 06:18 PM

The leaders of a nearly 50-year-old Durham nonprofit expect to learn this week whether their organization will lose federal funding for Head Start preschool program.
Operation Breakthrough Inc. could be replaced as the administrator of the program by a group based in Chapel Hill, said County Commissioners Chairman Michael Page, who also chairs the Operation Breakthrough board.
Page learned of the possibility last week while attending a Head Start training meeting in Atlanta, and relayed the word to his fellow board members. He confirmed the matter in an interview on Friday, saying the group is waiting on an official notice.
“It doesn’t look good at this point,” Page added.
Page told his colleagues last week that he hoped to “make one last plea” for continued funding to a regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start grants.
Meanwhile, other Operation Breakthrough staffers and board members sought help from the staff of U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st.
But the congressman’s aides “were very cautious and did not make any commitments one way or another,” said City Councilman Eddie Davis, who joined both the council and the Operation Breakthrough board as a replacement for former Councilman Howard Clement after Clement stepped down late last year.
Operation Breakthrough now operates five preschools.
Page said grant renewals for Head Start funding are competitive, and the as-yet-unidentified Chapel Hill group had put in a request for the money that’s available locally.
The possible funding loss comes as Operation Breakthrough, on a parallel track, struggles to get back into the good graces of state officials who fund a couple of the other anti-poverty programs the group is involved in.
An early 2013 monitoring visit by regulators from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services identified 19 separate bookkeeping, reporting, management or policy failures, including the provision of services to ineligible clients.
The various problems dated from as far back as fiscal 2010-11, and some had been noted in a 2011 monitoring check.
That means it’s been an issue for the state in the administrations of two governors, Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory, who hail from different political parties.
Officials from Operation Breakthrough and the state Office of Economic Opportunity have engaged in a back-and-forth ever since the 2013 monitoring report came down, with the nonprofit trying to respond to the agency’s demands.
Memos indicate that it’s had only partial success. Five of the problems have been addressed to the state’s satisfaction, but as of mid-May, 14 remained open.
The Office of Economic Opportunity is obviously not satisfied with the pace of the work. In April, it said it’d asked the senior leadership of the state Department of Health and Human Services to “de-designate” Operation Breakthrough as an eligible recipient of “community services block grant” fund.
The community services grant is federal money, but is administered by the state. It does not fund Head Start.
After receiving two more responses from Operation Breakthrough, state officials in May told the nonprofit internal auditors from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services would review the group’s “internal controls and safeguards.”
Office of Economic Opportunity Director Verna Best said in a May letter that she and her staff will consider the auditors’ findings as they decide whether the group should remain eligible for funding.
Page said the state essentially has “given us an extension until September to provide documentation [about] any programs we are currently running with them.”
Fundamentally, the state’s concerns are about the governance and management of Operation Breakthrough.
Its 2013 complaints included, for example, persistent absenteeism by a group of four board members who’ve since been replaced.
The group included Clement, who took sick late in 2011, and because of his illness basically stopped attending meetings of the City Council and other organizations.
At the staff level, Operation Breakthrough has experienced massive turnover, Best noted in one letter.
From April 2010 to April 2013, it went through three executive directors, five community-service grant managers, two fiscal directors and four human-resource officers.
It worked under interim chief executives for 20 months in four years.
The problems identified in the state’s April 2013 report pre-date the mid-summer hiring of Operation Breakthrough’s current executive director, James Tabron.
But that hire was not one calculated to inspire regulators’ confidence. Tabron is a former CEO of the Durham Housing Authority. He was ousted from that position in 2003 following the discovery that he’d been misusing an agency credit card.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also faulted him for channeling public housing money into DHA development projects the money wasn’t supposed to be used for.
Tabron has argued he and the board need more time to deal with the issues he inherited at Operation Breakthrough. But the state, via Best, says the group has no excuses for not following through, given that a number of the board’s members have been in place for much of the relevant time.
“The results of the recent visits are not related to past administration,” Best said in her May letter. “It relates to the current administration’s adherence to its own corrective action steps and responsiveness to [the state’s] requests.”