Federally Funded Head Start Program Lags Far Behind

Posted at 10:51 PM, Jul 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-18 23:51:48-04

A NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered questions about how millions of your tax dollars have been spent.

That money was supposed to be used to open several new Early Head Start centers here in Middle Tennessee to help at-risk children.

A year and a half after the project was announced NewsChannel 5 Investigates has found half of the centers still haven't opened.

Early Head Start is a year-round federally funded program for kids from birth through 3 years of age. The plan was to help more of these kids.

That hasn't exactly happened yet.

Just across the street from where we found a group of young kids sits what is supposed to be one of two new Early Head Start centers in Maury County.  It's filled with toys and supplies. There are teachers and staff here, too.

The only thing missing is the children.

Heather Luttrell, the mother of two of those children, said of the still-closed center, "I'm like, yeah, y'all need to open up."

Luttrell and her neighbor, Katie Benefield, both signed their kids up for the program.

Benefield said it was more than a year ago.

Yet, both mothers are still waiting for the federally funded child care and education center to open.

Benefield recalled, "They said August of 2015."

"That was the plan," replied the man in charge, Paul Rosson, executive director of the South Central Human Resource Agency.

Rosson admitted opening the centers is way behind schedule.

"There's many obstacles that we had to overcome in order to get the centers up and running," he explained.

The South Central Human Resource Agency received nearly $4 million from the federal government to expand its Early Head Start program, to add classrooms at its existing centers in Shelbyville and Pulaski and to open four new centers in Mt. Pleasant, Columbia, Manchester and Fayetteville.

And they told the feds they'd have them all open by August 2015.

But the Mt. Pleasant center still not opened. Neither has the facility in Columbia nor the one in Manchester.

Our investigation found that all three centers have been fully or nearly fully-staffed since late last summer.

They hired teachers, site managers, cooks, and social workers -- and they've been paying them ever since, even though not a single child has been attending classes there.

Laure Hopper, the Early Head Start program director told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "I'll just go ahead and say it, we were over zealous and optimistic about when we thought we would be able to get our new facilities up and running."

Hopper said the centers needed renovation and electrical work, fences, sprinklers, decks and ramps.

But instead of hiring outside help, they relied on their own maintenance workers to take care of most of the work on top of what they were already doing at some 25 other facilities across 13 counties.

SCHRA now admits that slowed things way down.

"And yet you keep hiring people?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Yes, it's kind of like strike while the iron is hot situation," Hopper answered.

Justin Owen, president of The Beacon Center, said that's just not the way to do business.

"Only government would think that it's appropriate to hire people to sit around for a year before they actually take a job and start doing what they were actually hired to do," Owen stated.

SCHRA head Paul Rosson acknowledged, "I think we could have done things better, yes, ma'am. But there was nothing malicious done on behalf of my staff."

Rosson took the job in March of this year after most of the employees had already been hired.

"But to the people who are watching this at home and they see that you hired all of these people who you have paid for months at a time?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"It wasn't that they were just sitting around, doing nothing," Rosson responded.

Yet, that's exactly what some former employees told us they did.

Rosson insisted the employees have spent the last year training, job shadowing and recruiting children for the new centers.

"You might need a couple of weeks to train someone to do this job, but a full year when you're still not serving children is a long time and it's a lot of taxpayer money," the Beacon Center's Owen countered.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Rosson, "You don't see anything wrong with spending all of this money and not having had these kids in your classrooms?"

"It's a few months difference. Yes, we woulda like to have saw that occur, of course," he added.

But Rosson isn't overly concerned by the year-long delay and neither, he said, are the feds.

Although the original grant application said programs would "be expected to begin providing services soon after receiving" the money, federal assessments don't start until 18 months later.

"It's like this, they give you 18 months to get the project up and going," Rosson explained.

But the Beacon Center's Owen wasn't convinced.

"So saying that we're going to start monitoring you in 18 months doesn't mean that you can just sit around on your laurels for 18 months and do nothing. Taxpayers should be outraged because this is money designed to help kids that is not helping kids."

In Mt. Pleasant, the moms there just wish the center would open.

"What are they telling you?" we asked Heather Luttrell.

"That they don't know when they're going to open yet," she said.

To put things in perspective, of the nearly $4 million dollars received, more than half of it has been spent so far on salaries and employee training.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates did check with the federal agency in Washington that awarded this grant to see if they were concerned by what we uncovered.

The Administration for Children and Families told us that they were not.

So when will these centers open? The goal, we are told, is by the end of next month.

In the meantime, the teachers just in the last few weeks started at least making house visits once a week to spend time with each of their students.