Financial Questions, Board’s Fights Pose Threat to Head Start : Youth: An L.A. organization that operates 33 of the programs is criticized for the trip 11 parents and staff members took to Hawaii last year.
Anthony Mendez, 3, was literally jumping for joy over school.
Asked to demonstrate what he had learned in his Lancaster Head Start class, Anthony obediently tucked one leg under him and hopped in a wide arc. He paused only long enough to loudly declare, “I like this school!”
In just one week since classes began at the Desert Community Church, Anthony had begun to develop fine motor skills, had learned left from right and could count to 11. Soon, said his proud mother, Linda Mendez, he would be ready for public school.
Anthony’s success story is not unique. In fact, it has been repeated millions of times since Head Start began 26 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. It was designed to give poor children a boost in life by teaching them basic skills before they enter public school.
But now the Los Angeles organization that operates Anthony’s program and 32 other Head Start centers in Southern California has been accused of financial improprieties and infighting that threatens the ability of the organization to expand its services to other needy youngsters.
Among the complaints against the Frederick Douglass Child Development Center are charges that donations may have been used to pay volunteer board members, that 11 parents and staff members from the agency traveled to Hawaii last year, and that the staff and board of directors are not representative of the ethnically diverse community they serve.
Frederick Douglass, which serves 1,200 disadvantaged children in Los Angeles and in the Antelope Valley, came into existence in 1966. Over the years, thousands of poor children have attended classes that taught a variety of physical and social skills, from painting at an easel to dental hygiene.
But in recent years, the organization has repeatedly come into conflict with regulators for the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides the majority of the organization’s $4-million annual budget, and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the local agency that disburses the federal funds. Other funds are provided by the California Department of Education and the city of Lancaster.
The conflicts came to a head on Aug. 17, 1990, when the county Office of Education threatened to suspend or terminate the agency’s $3.5-million annual grant.
The Office of Education ordered that a new executive director be hired and demanded that the organization learn how to solve problems without the feuding and backbiting that had developed in recent years.
It also ordered the board of directors to stop interfering in the daily operations of the organization and allow the executive director to do his job.
The executive director was hired and the agency staff attended several sessions with experts trained in teaching people how to get along. But this self-improvement effort collapsed after one year.
Two weeks ago, Executive Director Ted Anderson resigned, complaining that the board of directors, some of whose members have allegedly been in office more than a decade, never stopped meddling in the daily operations of the organization.
Next to resign was Robert Smith, the board of directors president whom Anderson had recruited as part of his reform effort.
“Many of the actions I have observed have been in direct violation of the board’s own policies and procedures,” Smith said in a strongly worded statement that did not specify which policies or procedures had been violated.
As a result, the federal Office of Community Programs under the Department of Health and Human Services, along with the county Office of Education, are said to be considering what action needs to be taken to rescue the troubled organization. An acting director will be sent to run the organization in the short term.
Some fear that the kinds of problems tearing at the administration of the organization in Los Angeles could filter down and into the classrooms where Anthony and hundreds of other children are depending upon the agency for a small head start on life.
Already, Frederick Douglass’ request to expand its services to another 401 disadvantaged children has been turned down by the Office of Education, which expressed “serious concerns about Frederick Douglass’ capability to expand, given its continuing internal problems.”
Carolyn Mangrum, director of the Office of Community Programs, said imposing such penalties is painful because the children suffer.
“The dilemma is you have children that need services,” she said.
Although there has been ongoing conflict within the agency for years, the resignation of Anderson brought to light a series of allegations that are being investigated by several outside agencies.
Among the most serious are charges that money may have been spent unwisely, or even improperly.
One allegation surrounds more than $20,000 that the city of Lancaster has given to the organization since 1984 to be used to benefit children at the five Lancaster Head Start sites. But some parents in Lancaster have complained that they often had to spend their own money for supplies.
They asked what happened to the Lancaster funds.
Anderson said money may have been diverted into a board of directors account and used to pay board members to attend meetings, despite the fact that membership is supposed to be voluntary. After he began looking into the Lancaster funds, several thousand dollars suddenly was shifted into the Lancaster account from the board account.
While Anderson said that looked suspicious, the agency’s fiscal officer said $4,400 of the Lancaster money was accidentally deposited in the board’s account back in 1985.
“It was an honest mistake,” Ludovico Ramillano said.
Ramillano said all the expenditures were proper and can be accounted for.
The city of Lancaster is investigating the matter.
Another allegation centered on a trip by 11 parents and staff members to a parent volunteer conference in Hawaii last October. One parent said she was told that there was plenty of money in the budget for the trip. But after it was over, the parents fund, out of which the money was taken, was so depleted that parents had to organize a fund-raiser to pay for a banquet honoring Head Start volunteers.
The trip was not illegal, but Mangrum said “it seemed unreasonable. It was not a carefully thought-out decision to send that many people to Hawaii.”
She said the organization should have considered how it would look for a poverty program to send a delegation to a resort.
“One thing to consider is what will it do to the image of the organization if they behave in this manner?” she said.
Critics also charge that the board and staff, the vast majority of which is black, does not represent the community it serves, much of which is Latino. Also, say the critics, some members have been on the board so long that they have gotten used to doing things their way, whatever the policies say.
Beverly Russell, the acting chairwoman of the board, confirmed that there are only two Latinos on the 11-member board.
“We’re going to be looking into that,” she said. “I’m trying to reorganize the board so we can try to recruit new people. Look at us six months from now and the board will be functioning much more effectively.”
As to the term limit, the board’s attorney, Jaffe Dickerson, said the bylaws say each term is three years. He said it is unclear how many consecutive terms are permitted.
Asked about the other allegations, Dickerson said “a lot of what you see is smoke. Certainly there are some problems, but they are not half as bad as they are made out to be.”
Some parents said they believe Anderson should bear some blame for trying to impose his will and vision unilaterally on an organization that was used to doing things its own way for many years. They allegedly bridled at his crisply worded memos and feared for their jobs. These parents said Anderson’s attitude was that he was going to kick the organization into shape no matter who suffered.
“Ted thought Frederick Douglass was personally his,” one parent said. “You just can’t start throwing people here and there.”
Anderson said he was only trying to mold Frederick Douglass into a more effective organization. But he said that he could never get the board to stop meddling. One example, according to several sources, was the board’s intervention on behalf of a longtime employee who had been temporarily laid off.
According to two sources, the board became directly involved in the matter, ordered the employee rehired and then engineered the firing of the man who ordered the layoff. All this was done while Anderson was on vacation. He resigned only a few weeks after he returned.
Several people affiliated with the program said many problems arose from the fact that too many decisions in the past were made on the basis of personal animosity or friendship, not written rules and regulations.
In an attempt to cut through the hostility and clannishness and improve the staff’s performance, Anderson scheduled a series of sessions with psychologists before his departure. Staff members were encouraged to talk about their relationships with their co-workers.
Long pent-up hatreds and jealousies came spilling out, Anderson said.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until I heard it with my own ears,” he said.
According to Anderson, even the psychologists were shocked. He said that they warned that, if something wasn’t done, “the staff was going to self-destruct.”