A parents advisory committee of the beleaguered Head Start program in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys called Tuesday for the resignation of the program's director, whose alleged mismanagement is blamed for an $800,000 budget shortfall.
The so-called Policy Council also voted to oppose both the layoff of 53 employees and a 12% salary cut for the remaining staff members. The salary reduction had been approved the previous night by the board of the Latin American Civic Assn., the community group that has operated the Head Start program for nearly 30 years.
"We have a problem of trust with the current LACA administration," said Bonita Allen, a delegate to the Policy Council.
Ralph Arriola, the program director and executive director of LACA, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. On Monday night, however, Arriola said he would consider stepping down "if that's what it takes to save the program. The program comes first."
Board Chairwoman Suzi Rodriguez said, however, she believes that Arriola has the support of the majority of the board.
"The board has said it has complete confidence in Mr. Arriola," she said.
Head Start provides meals, instruction and medical services to nearly 1,800 children in both valleys. In late February, Los Angeles County officials stripped LACA of $5.3 million in future federal funding, saying the agency was riddled with financial and other problems.
Rodriguez said the budget cuts approved Monday are necessary to maintain the program through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
The cuts were supposed to have taken effect Tuesday, but some employees had not been fired and there is a question whether the layoffs can proceed now that the Policy Council has voted to oppose the cuts.
According to county officials, federal guidelines require the council to approve any major changes in the budget or work programs.
Irma Serna, an assistant health coordinator, is among those workers scheduled to be laid off. But Serna said she will continue reporting to work until told otherwise by county officials or the Policy Council.
Andrew Kennedy, the county's director of Head Start programs, is scheduled to discuss the agency's financial status with the council and employees at 10:30 a.m. today at the Boys & Girls Club of the San Fernando Valley in Pacoima.
Mike Bower, a spokesman for the county Office of Education, which oversees the Head Start programs, said his office as of Tuesday night had not received a copy of the proposed budgets cuts, which also require county approval.
Bower said his office will make sure the cuts don't violate federal regulations. If county officials are not convinced the program will be solvent by the end of the fiscal year, he said, "We would, indeed, step in and take over the administration of the program."
Bower said county officials do not have the authority to ask Arriola to resign. He said it is clear, however, that "we're not happy with the way things have been managed. We think some changes would be needed. But really, all we can do is withhold money."
Bower said while there is a chance that LACA could still operate the program next fiscal year, county officials are seeking proposals from other agencies to run the program in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.
Shelli Yeoman, the council's chairwoman, said she would like LACA to continue operating the program, but only if Arriola and other top program officials resign. If not, she said, another nonprofit agency should take over the program.
The agency's problems began last summer when county officials began investigating complaints by parents and employees concerning the group's operation. Officials found that LACA had violated federal regulations by renting office space and vans from its own employees, overpaid staff members and engaged in nepotism, including the hiring of Arriola's wife and other members of his family.
In December, the agency was ordered to repay $104,700 in federal funds for those violations. Since then, county officials have discovered that LACA is $822,000 short of meeting its $5-million budget for the remaining months of the current fiscal year.
In January, county officials suggested that LACA pare part of the deficit by cutting some top-level agency jobs. Instead, Arriola proposed cutting 60 positions, 40 of which were teachers or teachers' aides.
Arriola has acknowledged committing some of the violations, but denies profiting from them.