The cubbyholes are empty now, and so, largely, is the classroom. A dozen brown boxes are piled in the center of the room, but other remnants of the Head Start program are still scattered in disarray: three red tricycles, a yellow Little Tikes shopping cart and petite wooden versions of a sink, stove and refrigerator, as well as the tables, chairs and colored rugs.
The room looks as if it was abandoned in a hurry, with the movers leaving behind anything that wasn't easily portable. And, in a sense, it was.
The classroom was run by the Human Development Corp. of Metropolitan St. Louis, and in October HDC officials told the state they didn't intend to renew that location's child-care license, which was to expire on Nov. 30. But HDC didn't bother to tell its landlord, Wesley House, that it was closing the classroom and moving out. Wesley House executive director Terry Jones says the only reason he found out about the closing was that he called HDC in late November. He was told they were leaving the building because they didn't like the color of the walls. Apparently HDC wanted white walls; the room had been painted a robin's-egg blue. Jones was flummoxed.So were state child-care officials, when they made an impromptu visit on Dec. 3 and found that the Head Start classroom was still operating there -- albeit without a license. HDC was told the location was operating illegally, and the next day the teachers and students were gone.
"Everybody kind of had a suspicion that HDC was having difficulties," Jones says. "We recognized some of their short sides -- caseload, revenue and the problems they were having." Still, his organization was supposed to receive a 30-day notice under the terms of HDC's lease.
"There was no notice this was going to occur," Jones says. "It wasn't done very businesslike."
What seemed unbusinesslike to Jones was business as usual at HDC. And the shuttered classroom at Wesley House -- which regularly fell short of its capacity of 17 children -- is a symptom of the many maladies that have plagued HDC for years.
For starters, HDC has been accepting more than $11 million per year from the federal government to serve about 2,500 children but has yet to come even close to serving that many. Two years ago, it was more than 1,000 kids short -- in a city that has one of the highest childhood-poverty rates in the nation. Estimates indicate that more than 5,000 city children are eligible for Head Start.
There are other problems at HDC: The agency has repeatedly failed to pay its bills on time. It has overdrawn its bank account by a half-million dollars and finished the last two years more than $300,000 in debt. Meanwhile, HDC board members, staffers and others have spent more than $100,000 a year attending conventions and seminars in cities like Honolulu and San Francisco.
For the past three years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been unhappy with the way HDC manages the city's Head Start program -- attempting last year to take away the program entirely. Sagging enrollment, low attendance rates and HDC's inability to oversee its finances were just a few of the problems cited.
Michael Kharfen, an HHS spokesman in Washington, D.C., calls HDC's problems some of the most "egregious" in the nation and ones that raise fundamental questions about the agency's ability to manage a program in which millions of tax dollars are at stake.
The real losers, Kharfen says, are the hundreds of children who are denied Head Start services as a result.
"We don't have unlimited resources," Kharfen says. "We can't serve every kid that is eligible. They are not enrolling kids we know are out there. Those kids are being deprived the benefit of a Head Start program."
Head Start was launched in 1965 in the midst of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty as a free summer program to help prepare disadvantaged kids for public school. Its common-sense approach had such widespread appeal that by its second year more than 700,000 children were enrolled.
It was a preschool and more, at a time when preschools were far rarer than they are today. In addition to learning activities designed to prepare the kids for kindergarten, the 3- and 4-year-olds got free immunizations and dental care and were taught such basics as hand-washing and teeth-brushing and given nutritious meals. Classroom time meant a range of activities -- sitting in a circle listening to stories, creating artwork, playing with blocks, pretending housekeeping duties or exercising on an outdoor jungle gym.
One key component, which has helped the success of the program, has been Head Start's emphasis on working with the parents, most of whom live below the poverty level. Parents have always been involved in running the program. Some get to work their way up and become Head Start teachers themselves. Head Start staff can also refer families to needed social services.
Funded by federal money, Head Start has always been administered by local nonprofit agencies, and over time, as other War on Poverty programs have withered away, Head Start, for the most part, has thrived. Former President George Bush boosted federal funding for Head Start, as did President Bill Clinton. Since its inception, Head Start has served more than 16 million children; about $4 billion is now spent to serve nearly 800,000 children each year, including 15,000 in Missouri. Nevertheless, federal estimates show the program is serving only two out of every five eligible children.The HHS's Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the local grants nationwide, has become increasingly aggressive about terminating local contracts with nonprofit agencies that fail to meet goals. Of 1,500 local providers in the country, like HDC, 100 have lost their grant money since 1994.For HDC, a private nonprofit agency that administers Head Start in the city of St. Louis, the program brought $11.6 million in federal dollars last year.
HDC's most recent problems began with a visit to the agency's headquarters by an HHS team in April 1997 as part of its regularly scheduled three-year performance review. HDC received enough funding to serve 2,519 children at the 63 Head Start centers in St. Louis -- 23 of which are operated by the Archdiocese of St. Louis through a contract with HDC.
The list of problems the team found during its 1997 visit were extensive.
First were the low number of children enrolled in the program and the low attendance rates of those children. Given that HHS knows it is reaching only 40 percent of the children eligible nationally, the federal agency is understandably adamant about ensuring that tax dollars are not being wasted by slots that remain unfilled. At the time of the review, HDC's total enrollment was short by 23 percent, with fewer than 2,000 children enrolled. The agency was supposed to keep a waiting list of applications for children above the 2,500 level -- but its list contained the names of children too young for the Head Start program.
Of those children who were enrolled in the program, many were not attending regularly. In 1996, the attendance rate was 68 percent; in 1997, it was 60 percent. Federal regulations require that Head Start providers ensure an 85 percent attendance rate. When attendance falls below that rate, teachers are supposed to contact parents and provide support services, particularly when a child has four or more consecutive unexcused absences. HDC was failing to do so.
In fact, HDC was failing to keep parents involved, a key part of Head Start, by neglecting to make the routine two home visits to ensure that parents remain active in their children's education.
When it came to disabled children, HDC fell short again. Only 5.8 percent of the children enrolled were disabled; the federal government requires 10 percent. HDC was making no concerted effort to recruit disabled children. In fact, eight disability consultants paid by HDC were unqualified to test for and evaluate disabilities in kids already enrolled.
There were problems in the classroom. Three teachers did not meet the minimal criteria set out by Head Start regulations. Health education was not regularly included in daily lesson plans, and parents were not offered first-aid training or information on preventive health and safety practices -- part of Head Start's mission to provide health services and strengthen parenting skills.
HDC's handling of money didn't measure up, either. The agency did not break down expenses as administrative or program-related, so there was no way to tell whether the agency's administrative costs were excessive. HDC did not appear to have adequate control -- or accountability -- over its funds, property and other assets. There were "improper charges" to the Head Start program.
So in August 1997, HHS sent HDC a letter informing the St. Louis agency of the nature of the problems that had been discovered. HDC was asked to submit a plan to fix the problems and told that the deficiencies needed to be corrected within a year. HDC prepared a "quality improvement plan," but it did not satisfy HHS officials, who said the proposed plan lacked the kind of comprehensive approach needed to fix the problems. A follow-up visit to HDC was scheduled for June 1998.
Things only got worse.
The June 1998 visits turned up more problems -- and the earlier ones hadn't been corrected. HHS officially designated HDC as "high risk." Enrollment had fallen to even lower levels: HDC was underenrolled by 1,148 in October 1997. Then things improved a bit; by January 1998, HDC was 849 short. Two months later, enrollment hit 1,900 -- about the same level that the review team found in April 1997 but still 600 short. A waiting list of potential Head Start children did not exist.
A random review of files showed that Head Start workers, in 30 percent of cases, were failing to determine whether the children met the program's income qualifications. Federal rules require at least 90 percent of those enrolled to be at or below federal poverty guidelines. In some instances, the agency had enrolled children who were 2 years old and too young for Head Start.
When the HHS team looked at the files of 24 students, it found that in 21 cases, teachers had never conducted the required follow-up visits with parents to get feedback about the program.
Another 45 files showed that the parents of disabled children weren't getting a host of crucial information from the teachers -- about reinforcing learning at home, about the Americans with Disabilities Act and about Supplemental Security Income that their children might qualify for.
And then Ben McMillan gave the review team an earful about HDC. McMillan -- whose company, Bentech, sold computers to HDC -- told them he was owed $75,000 and that he and other vendors hadn't been paid on time. He said HDC employees were apparently making questionable purchases with Head Start funds, such as a refrigerator for the agency's purchasing department. He said that he had seen HDC employees scrambling to make purchases at the end of the fiscal year because so much money had gone unspent in the budget, and that he had observed "several staff sitting at tables with catalogues going through what they would like for their offices, i.e., furniture, etc." HDC bought equipment with old bids, McMillan said, such as the October 1995 bid used to purchase computers from his firm in 1998, even though the cost of computers had fallen during that time. (A few months after his discussions with the team, HDC sued McMillan, claiming he sold the agency outdated computers at inflated prices; the case is pending.)
More questions surfaced about HDC's financial practices, because bank reconciliations -- the corporate equivalent of balancing a checkbook -- hadn't been done in months and the disposition of old checks hadn't been noted on checks as far back as 1996.
Records showed a bank overdraft of $500,000 in 1997, and the preceding three financial audits had shown the agency to be operating at a deficit. Tax returns for the fiscal year that ended in November 1997 showed that the agency finished more than $320,000 in debt; by November 1998, it was $430,000 in debt. HDC wasn't paying its bills within a three-month period, including utility bills for its Head Start centers. Checks were written to vendors but not mailed. Purchases were made without proper bids or with no invoices attached. One HDC employee ordered a fully loaded Chevrolet Suburban with leather seats for use on the job, a purchase "which would not be visibly "reasonable' for a Head Start purchase without additional financial documentation."
Its warehouse contained furniture, microwaves, computers and other valuable items but no inventory list to track them. A warehouse supervisor said the only mechanism to keep the equipment from "walking off" was his presence every day, because he "knew what was there." Even the agency's executive director admitted to the team that financial and property records were "unreliable" and that her finance director was "incompetent."
HDC's efforts at keeping parents involved in running the program were also found lacking. On the Head Start Policy Council, a 36-member board made up mainly of parents, the team found there were "major improprieties in the tallying of the score" in hiring a new director for the program. The agency would call ad hoc meetings of the council but summon only certain members, leaving others out. The council said it believed underenrollment was at least partly caused by a lack of full-day classrooms, and yet the agency hadn't taken appropriate steps "in several years to move to that option." Minutes from one council meeting said a trip to Cancun was offered to "any parent responsible for enrolling five families."
Five months after that visit, in November 1998, HHS notified the agency that it was losing its Head Start program altogether. The letter officially terminated the $11.6 million contract on three grounds: failure to comply with fiscal requirements; failure to recruit and enroll children consistent with its funded level; and failure to have proper plans and activities for children with disabilities.
HDC appealed and was allowed to keep operating the program in the meantime. After a hearing last summer, a departmental appeals board ruled in HDC's favor, finding that under Head Start's rules and regulations the agency did not have adequate notice of the deficiencies or enough time to correct any alleged deficiencies.
HHS spokesman Kharfen says the agency prevailed "on technical grounds. They were not absolved of those deficiencies and problems. There was a technical step in the process that was not taken, not that the program was providing the kinds of services that merit them continuing to have the grant."
And although HDC won its appeal, the scrutiny was far from over. In a Nov. 8 letter, the government repeated its earlier lists of deficiencies in the St. Louis program and put the agency on notice that it had 90 days to fix them.
A review team is planning a visit in February.
Ruth A. Smith bristles when the subject of the federal review comes up. As she escorts a visitor to her office, a large room in the basement of what appears to be an old school building at 929 N. Spring Ave., she points to the plaques and commendations on the wall from various elected officials, recognizing HDC, praising its work.
A widow whose husband died in 1998 -- a death, she says, accelerated by his worries about disgruntled HDC workers' making false accusations against her -- Smith wears her hair pulled tightly behind her head. She's worked at HDC for decades, starting as a junior accountant in the late 1960s. She left for two years in the early 1970s and returned in 1974 as assistant comptroller and payroll branch manager. She has stayed ever since, rising to comptroller under HDC's former general manager, Harold Antoine. Since Antoine's retirement in 1994, Smith has held the top post at HDC. As executive director, she earned more than $100,000 in salary and compensation in 1998, according to the most recent tax returns on file with the IRS. She drives a 1994 Mercury Marquis paid for by HDC. She's working on a degree in management at Maryville University; Smith says she's a senior this year.
"I didn't want this job, to tell you the truth," Smith says. "It was the staff and the board and the community that kept after me to apply for this job. My pastor called me over and said, "I'm tired of all these people coming to me. I want you to put your résumé in and forget it.'"
As executive director, Smith oversees an anti-poverty agency that takes in $16 million a year -- more than 70 percent of it coming from the Head Start program. She oversees a staff of 450 full- and part-time workers. In addition to Head Start, the agency manages temporary food- and energy-assistance programs; an employment program; and the federal WIC program, a supplemental food program for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children up to age 5. Formed in 1964 as the St. Louis area's first community-action agency, HDC gets more than 95 percent of its money from taxpayer dollars.
In 1991, three years before Smith took over from Antoine, HDC gave up management of the Head Start program in St. Louis County, at least partly in response to allegations of mismanagement. And in 1992, the state of Missouri assumed control of a $1 million weatherization program run by HDC after an audit found repeated instances of HDC's paying bills for work that had not actually been performed. Antoine's retirement came in 1994, the same year it was learned that he had paid his own private company to do some work for HDC.
Smith says she inherited a host of problems that existed under her predecessor, and in some ways she measures herself by him. She says nepotism was rampant under Antoine (who did not respond to attempts to reach him for this story).
"If they had come in and checked when he was here, they'd find his granddaughter and all kinds of Antoines were on the payroll," Smith says. "I've never had any of my relatives -- I take that back; I had a sister-in-law years ago work here on a temporary basis because she was qualified -- but I didn't supervise her." She says she earns less than Antoine did -- and she took a 10 percent pay cut last summer to help fix the deficit problem. Smith notes that she drives a 6-year-old car, whereas Antoine got a new one every two years.
When she took over in 1994, Smith says, she was determined to clean up the agency after seeing things during her tenure that "were not what I call proper." But her own attempts to bring about change, including cracking down on lazy employees who didn't put in a full day's work, she says, has created a host of new problems she did not anticipate. She says she is under attack from disgruntled former and current employees who have "sabotaged" the Head Start program.
"I know I have tried to clean up this agency," Smith says. "That is why I'm having all this opposition -- because I have stepped on people's toes."
Smith blames state Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis) for bringing on the investigations after she fired a longtime employee who turned to Troupe for help. She blames the Policy Council, a group made up mostly of Head Start parents that must approve all hirings and firings in the program. She blames friends of a former Head Start worker who was unhappy when she didn't get a promotion to Head Start director.
She says one of her first moves when she stepped into the top job was to implement a drug-free workplace, because many employees were not putting in a full "seven-and-a-half hours" and many of them, she says, "were alcoholics." The first week the drug-free policy was implemented, Smith says, 34 employees quit, from the top ranks to the bottom rungs, from finance to janitorial. "We lost a lot of bus drivers," Smith says. "We lost individuals from all areas, and that really strained the agency."
Smith says she tried to crack down on individuals who didn't put in a full day's work -- with mixed results. In March 1997, she fired a 28-year HDC employee, Helen French, after her supervisor, who was also Smith's assistant, complained she was having to do French's work when French did not come into the office. At the time, French headed the purchasing department. French then sought the help of Troupe, who sent a letter to HDC urging that she be given her job back. Smith says Troupe warned her that if French didn't get her job back: "Your agency will go through an investigation that is out of this world."
French later sued HDC; the case is pending. Documents in the case, however, indicate she received positive reviews as recently as three months before her termination, with ratings of "excellent" or "outstanding" in all areas of her work.
Smith blames Troupe for bringing on the scrutiny of the federal government.
Troupe, for his part, makes no apologies if his actions did create problems for the agency. "It's not that I'm anti-HDC. I'm just pro-efficiency and productivity, and the black organizations are going to have to start increasing their capacity to do good work. She just happened to be one of the first ones," he says. Troupe says he was concerned for the children and the quality of services HDC provides. "They lost their Early Head Start program, and Early Head Start is good for kids," he said. "When you look at what's happening to the kids, we had no choice but to bring the roof down."
In addition to Troupe, Smith blames the friends of a former HDC employee who applied for the job of Head Start director after Lois Harris, who had run Head Start for years, left in 1997. The employee was Renee Joiner, and for reasons Smith says she cannot go into, Smith says she could not give her the job. Joiner did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.
Smith wanted to hire another woman, but the Policy Council wanted Joiner. The impasse delayed the hiring of a director for months. The No. 3 candidate later got the job in mid-1998; he was fired in August.
Smith says she was told by other HDC employees that if Joiner didn't get the promotion, "I would resent it. I would have problems. I would not have a Head Start program.
"Sure enough," Smith adds, "there was open sabotage in the Head Start program. You know where someone has their followings. Because she did not get that position, there was open sabotage. The program was outright sabotaged."
Smith blames sabotage for a host of the findings by the HHS review team: the files in which no one had verified the incomes of Head Start families; the reason attendance and enrollment were so low; the agency's failure to pay its bills on time; its operating in a deficit.
"That was during the time we had all this sabotage going on," she says.
Referring to the income verification, Smith says: "That information was pulled out of the file. When your janitor tells you there is sabotage in your agency, there is sabotage. Documents were disappearing that were originally there."
On the bills that weren't paid for months, Smith says new employees were wrongly instructed by other longtime employees to simply stick unpaid invoices in their desks. "One new person -- brand-new -- was told to just put the invoice in her desk. It was a bill to pay towels or something. She said, "I was told to do nothing with it.'" Smith denies power was ever turned off at any of the 63 Head Start locations but acknowledges there were "threats" of a disconnect.
Asked about the agency's debt, Smith says the problem has been corrected and will be reflected in this fiscal year's audit, which is in progress. "Part of the deficit was brought on by changes in the finance department and people sabotaging the agency. They thought maybe they had expenditures of $100,000, but somebody out there was holding another $100,000."
Other issues cited by the federal review team, she says, were exaggerated. Smith says the trip to Cancun referred to in the Policy Council minutes was a single trip offered by whomever could bring in the most children for enrollment in Head Start and that it was to be paid for from a non-Head Start fund. She says the trip was never actually taken.
She defends other travel by HDC representatives, from staff to its board of directors. About 20 employees traveled to a conference in San Francisco in 1996, at least partly to accept an award for a program that places 10 youths in summer jobs. Smith says she wanted to make up for many years in which certain employees in the Community Service Block Grant program were not allowed to attend conferences. They stayed two to a hotel room to save money, Smith says, and were "better informed" about their jobs because they attended.
In 1997, Smith, her husband, the HDC board chairman and four staff members traveled to Honolulu for a conference. Smith has proof her husband paid for his own ticket and that hers cost just $50. She acknowledges the group used a limousine for a night on the town but says they chipped in and paid for it themselves.
Just last month, HDC's public-relations director traveled to San Diego for a conference, and four members of the Policy Council took a trip to Miami for a another. Various members of the Policy Council have traveled to Berkeley, Calif., Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., since May 1998, according to the minutes of its meetings.
Tax returns show HDC spent $834,000 on "travel" during the fiscal year that ended in November 1998, but Smith cannot provide a breakdown of how much was spent on conventions and how much was related to the agency's school buses and other travel expenses. She does say that in any given year, "If we spend $100,000 (on conventions), we're doing pretty good."
She says HDC has a proper system of checks and balances: "For a staff person to travel, they must be approved by the director of that various program; then the information is sent to me for review; then I authorize that. The board has to authorize my travel. The board's travel has to be authorized by me."
Smith refutes many of the other allegations contained in the federal review. She says that if any 2-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start, it was because they were only a month or so shy of turning 3. She says the Chevrolet Suburban was purchased with Head Start funds -- it was cheaper than a Dodge, she says -- and that it is used when a group of employees need to travel to Kansas City or on trips around town. "It will hold eight comfortably. It's used constantly."
Smith and others at HDC say the biggest problem with sagging enrollment is the lack of full-day slots at Head Start, which are now needed in the aftermath of welfare reform. HDC is working with the city's public school district to use some of its facilities to provide full-day services. Smith says her agency is also looking at beefing up enrollment by providing a 24-hour service for those parents who do not work traditional 9-to-5 jobs. She says enrollment is up and the agency is now about 160 slots short of its requirement, though she cannot cite precise figures.
She concedes there are problems at HDC but she won't accept the blame. "My hands are really tied," Smith says. "We don't really run Head Start. The board of directors, who have fiscal overall legal responsibility, does not run Head Start. I don't run Head Start."
She refers again to the Policy Council, which must approve hirings in the program and has certain other supervisory responsibilities. The person who was ultimately hired as Head Start director, Wendell Campbell, was fired last year because, Smith says, he was "not performing." The person currently in the job on an interim basis is Willia Givens, another longtime HDC employee.
"She's been here 20 or 30 years. I appointed her," Smith says. "She was the only one who had been there awhile and knew the ins and outs of the program."
The Policy Council, meanwhile, changes membership every year, in December. Of the eight members who were listed on the board as of last month, most did not respond to calls seeking comment. One who did says she does not think she is allowed to publicly comment on the workings of the Head Start program.
Larry Hinton-Johnson is chairman of HDC's 18-member board of directors, which oversees Smith and selected her for the executive-director job. He has served on the board since he was 21. He's now 43. Hinton-Johnson defends the agency's work and says the issues raised in the prior federal audits are overblown.
He says the agency was "vindicated" when the appeals board overturned HHS's decision last year to terminate HDC's $11.6 million grant. He does not want to discuss any pending action by the federal government.
"In 33 years of providing services, we've never had any major problems such as misappropriation of money, misspent money or financial fiduciary irresponsibility," says Hinton-Johnson. "They say, "Enrollment, attendance, fiscal mismanagement.' Whoopee-doopee-do.
"They've had questions about us paying our bills late," he says. "Excuse me, but who the hell doesn't pay their bills late?"
Hinton-Johnson says that HDC's problems stem, at least partly, from its lack of many full-day slots. He says the agency is also facing increasing competition from other providers of daycare services, such as schools and home-based care by relatives, in a city with a shrinking population.
Still, he won't concede the federal audit found any severe problems in the agency.
On the low enrollment figures cited by the federal government, Hinton- Johnson simply disagrees with the federal definition of "enrollment."
"It all depends on how you define attendance and enrollment," he says. "We might have 1,800 attending in September. Enrollment is defined as any time you provide a service for those kids, you can provide a comprehensive social-service package. Then they might attend for one day and never attend again. You still have provided a service for them."
He says he's proud of the work HDC is doing. "We feel good about our program. We're not saying we didn't have deficiencies. In any major organization, you're going to have deficiencies. But none of it, in my personal opinion, ever warranted the termination of this program."
Board member Raymond Gamache says he is confident of the work HDC is doing. "As far as I'm concerned, the threat is over. Now we just have to make sure we do our job."
Ald. Gregory Carter (D-27th), also a board member, says many of the board members wanted to give up the Head Start program when the federal government announced it wanted to terminate the agency's contract. He urged them to fight and retain the program. Carter blames many of the lingering problems on issues that Smith inherited from Antoine: "During his tenure, there were quite a few problems there that the board of directors as well as Mrs. Smith is trying to correct."
Carter also sees sabotage as a problem. "It's very hard and very difficult -- we're trying to save it, and people out there are trying to destroy it," Carter says. "Right now, we're trying to run it under today's standards, and people who are there are still living in the late '70s as to how to run an agency. This is no fault of Mrs. Smith. She is the best thing to happen to HDC."
At Wesley House, where the former Head Start classroom is empty, Terry Jones misses the patter of little feet and the chatter of young children. "I miss the short people," Jones says. "They created a noise, a buzz that you like. They are hope."
More than a month has passed since the teachers and children cleared out, but the boxes of Head Start supplies, the furniture, rugs, toys and a refrigerator are still waiting for someone from HDC to pick them up. The fact that all the supplies remain there, Jones believes, is "a symptom of the problems they're experiencing."
He says he wishes HDC the best. He hopes HDC can run the Head Start program properly. He talks about how important Head Start is to low-income children and how much it can help them prepare for school. He wants Head Start to continue.
Jones says that if Wesley House, a nonprofit that also runs after-school programs at its building on Lee Avenue in North St. Louis, decided to get rid of him because, for whatever reason, they felt it was best for the program, he would willingly step down.
"Whoever runs it is not as important as that it gets done," Jones says, "that someone does it and does it well."