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LACA Turns the Corner After 2 Years of Turmoil : Head Start: San Fernando group, which serves poor children, has made gains in reorganization, officials say.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly two years after county officials threatened to take over its mismanaged Head Start program, the Latin American Civic Assn. has emerged as a leaner, more efficient organization, providing meals, health care and instruction to hundreds of poor children in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, authorities monitoring the group report.

LACA--which violated federal spending guidelines in 1992 and later lost a critical $600,000 state grant to run preschool programs--has yet to make a full recovery. But the group’s steady reorganization progress has satisfied officials at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which contracts with LACA to run the federally funded national Head Start program.

“I really think (county officials) didn’t think we were going to make it,” said Irene Tovar, a LACA founder who took over as executive director in a major management shake-up. “There was a serious commitment to the children. Under no circumstances were we going to let down the children.”

Steve Horowitz, a spokesman for the county education office, said in a written statement that LACA has made “significant progress,” and that county officials would work with the agency to continue to strengthen its operations.

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“The county will continue to help LACA complete all obligations that were under review, including finalizing all past financial obligations,” Horowitz said.

The regional office of the Administration of Children and Families--which oversees the Head Start program for the federal Department of Health and Human Services--recently evaluated LACA to make sure it was in compliance with federal regulations.

The results of that review will not be released until next month, but LACA and county officials expect a positive report.

“As highlighted in the federal review, LACA was found to have performed outstandingly well in the areas of social service, parent involvement and fiscal management,” said Horowitz, who has reviewed a draft of the federal findings.

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The positive outlook culminates nearly two years of turmoil that nearly led to the demise of the San Fernando community institution that had been the sole Head Start provider serving mostly poor preschool children in the two valleys. In the aftermath, LACA no longer will hold a monopoly over such programs in the region but remains determined to serve its largely Latino clientele, Tovar said.

The last major hurdle for LACA, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year, is repayment of $100,000 to the County Office of Education for unauthorized expenditures that were made in 1992 by LACA’s former director.

Tovar has filed a claim with LACA’s insurance company under a provision in the policy that covers unlawful expenditures made by the agency’s officers and is optimistic it will be paid.

However, if the insurance company rejects the claim, Tovar said she will have to raise the money from private sources, a difficult task considering the agency’s tarnished image and the still-tight economy. County officials consider repayment of the debt a condition of LACA’s reorganization plan.

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The unauthorized expenditures were discovered by county inspectors in 1992, who also found that LACA, under former Executive Director Ralph Arriola, had rented office space and vans from its own employees, overpaid some staff members and engaged in nepotism.

County officials estimated that the mismanagement would result in an $850,000 budget shortfall, and the county education office threatened to take over the Head Start program if LACA did not balance its books. County officials in February, 1993, also stripped LACA of any future funding to run Head Start programs.

Arriola’s actions were not found by the county to warrant criminal prosecution; instead, officials labeled them gross mismanagement.

Meanwhile, angry parents and staff members forced the resignation of Arriola. The board of directors was completely reorganized, replaced by many of LACA’s founding members. To make up for the projected shortfall and satisfy a county concern about top-heavy staffing, about 50 employees, mostly middle and upper management, were laid off. Services to children were not affected in the immediate shake-up.

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As a result of the reorganization, the county office gave LACA a second chance and restored Head Start funding for this year, but with various conditions that prevent the organization from expanding and require them to repay the $100,000 in unauthorized expenditures with outside funding.

However, in November, 1993, the organization was dealt another blow when the state Department of Education notified LACA that it had missed a deadline to file documents detailing its progress, and that it would not renew a $600,000 grant to offer preschool to 257 students for 1994-95, leaving a service void for the fall of 1994.

Under its reorganization plan, the number of employees has dropped from about 300 to 250--mostly reflecting the loss of staff when LACA lost its state preschool grant. By tightening some areas of the budget and reshuffling job duties, Tovar said she has been able to raise salaries so that employees are at 99% parity with similar agencies.

“Head Start does not pay very well, but at least we can be a little more marketable now,” she said.

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Tovar said enrollment is currently at 98% of her allotted 1,332 slots, compared to 88% at this time last year.

Employee training sessions on county and federal budget regulations have been held, and Tovar said she tries to communicate more openly with staff about LACA’s operations.

Tovar is hoping to move LACA from its longtime 4,400-square-foot headquarters at Kewen and Kalisher streets, and consolidate under one roof its three satellite offices, a kitchen and three warehouses. She is negotiating for a 25,000-square-foot site in an industrial park on the east side of the city near San Fernando Recreation Park.

The consolidation would generate some savings, she said, but the exact amount is not known.

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Still, reviving LACA has not been easy. Tovar admits that employees have been overworked and underpaid during this time. Some longtime employees quit or were fired, some leaving with bitterness toward Tovar and the new administration.

The group’s former mental health coordinator, Kay Hinchliffe, resigned last fall, saying at the time that Tovar was too authoritarian and was not promoting a sense of family and community within the organization.

“I don’t think the new administration is knowledgeable about the (Head Start) program,” said Romeo Crisolo, who was fired in September as fiscal officer after 15 years with LACA. Crisolo had been on a six-month stress leave prior to being fired for allegedly missing three consecutive days without notifying the agency.

Crisolo blames Tovar for his stress, saying it began when she suspended him for insubordination because he refused to stay late to retype a document.

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“I didn’t violate any rules,” Crisolo insists. “She just doesn’t like me.”

Tovar said she could not discuss individual employees because of personnel privacy laws, but she said that the complaints came from disgruntled workers who were upset that she cracked down on them for being unproductive or for violating office policies.

“I think some of them had the bad habits of the past administration,” Tovar said in an earlier interview. “They have shown a lack of accountability. Those that left could not cut the mustard. We now have people who are really enthusiastic about their jobs.”

Jo Navarro, an official with Local 1475 of the Early Childhood Development Federation, the union that represents most of LACA’s 200 non-supervisorial employees, said she was not aware of any complaints. Instead, she praised Tovar.

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“Since Irene has taken over, she has been very open in dealing with the union,” Navarro said. “My hat’s off to her.”

Parental involvement on the board of directors has been doubled to four, winning Tovar praise from some parents.

Angie Veloz, one of the parents on the board, called the criticism of Tovar “a bunch of you know what. We are all trying to reorganize from the previous mess. It’s just taking time.”

Tovar said she has put the criticism behind her and is looking to continue to improve so that at some point soon LACA will be allowed to widen its service area.

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Although LACA enrollment is up, its service area was reduced as part of its punishment for past wrongdoings. And its monopoly on Head Start programs in the Valley will be broken in the coming months with the arrival of two new agencies offering Head Start programs.

Volunteers of America, which has offices in North Hollywood, plans to serve as many as 238 children at centers in North Hollywood, Tujunga, Sunland and Sun Valley beginning next month. The number is expected to increase to 496, with expansion into Studio City, by next fall.

Child Care Resource Center in North Hollywood hopes to serve as many as 200 children in Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks and Tarzana by March, and as many as 400 by next fall.

A third agency, Los Angeles Child Care and Development Council based in East Los Angeles, was awarded the $600,000 annual state grant for preschool programs that was taken away from LACA this year. The new agency, which is looking for a facility in the East Valley, will serve the 257 San Fernando Valley children that previously had been served by LACA.

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The new agencies had been expected to start their programs by the end of this year but have had difficulty finding classroom space.

“I think the grantee has found out that it is not that easy to develop new sites,” Tovar said. “We have 90 kids on a waiting list at our Newhall site, but we’re not allowed to accept them,” she said, referring to the county condition that prevents them from expanding. “That’s the tragedy of the situation.”


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