Audit Details Head Start Program Flaws

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Office of Education corroborated several charges of mismanagement against a Head Start child-care program that operates two dozen schools in the San Fernando Valley but dismissed other serious claims made by program employees, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The Latin American Civic Assn. inadequately logged volunteer hours to generate in-kind federal funding, failed to provide mental health services for children and fired an employee without a timely review, the county report said.

But allegations that workers' compensation claims diverted funds from school programs, classrooms were overcrowded and undersupplied, and agency Executive Director Irene Tovar used her position to campaign for the Valley anti-secession movement were all dismissed by the county for insufficient evidence.

The allegations surfaced late last year when some parents and employees complained of poor leadership at the agency. Many called for the resignation of Tovar, a prominent local figure in Democratic Party and Latin American politics for decades.

The county, which contracts with the association to operate the Head Start programs, had nearly completed an audit in December but decided to extend the investigation to address the parents' and employees' allegations. With Tuesday's release of the audit, the agency now has 90 days to address its problems and report back to the Office of Education. No one from the county office returned calls Tuesday for further comment.

"I think, as a whole," Tovar said, "the report clarifies all the serious allegations of fraud and corruption, and of being accused of being a 'nonprofit mafia.' "

Tovar, a former top aide to Jerry Brown when he was governor, said she was pleased the audit found no evidence that the administration had bungled finances to the detriment of the agency's 1,385 children.

Ruben Zacarias, chairman of the association's nine-member board, said most of the problems outlined by the audit were "procedural" and could be fixed.

"The board has total confidence in Ms. Tovar's integrity and ability to work with all the parties involved to correct the deficiencies," Zacarias said.

Teachers and parents had yet to read the report, which was released at noon.

The audit did confirm that teachers had asked parents to sign blank volunteer logs -- in essence recording volunteer hours and activities before they occurred.

Each hour is worth about $15 in funding credits to the association. The in-kind contributions are factored toward its obligation to match 20% of its $9.76 million in annual federal funding.

The report said two parents "denied the signatures on the time sheets were theirs" and "volunteer activities included questionable costs, such as selling of raffle tickets" and claims for 77 hours of baby-sitting the class pet.

The county auditors also found that in one of the 35 employee terminations they investigated, the agency failed to provide a timely review of the worker by a parent council, as required by federal regulations.

In addition, two children were found to have been denied mental health services, even though the agency is mandated to do so. The report also said Tovar failed to record her hours and mileage reimbursement claims accurately.

"Our whole purpose was to see the schools get better," said Susan Lopez-McKinney, a parent organizer who used to have a child in the program and whose mother worked in the administration. "We don't want to see LACA fail. We want the administration to do what they're supposed to do."

The audit did not address all the concerns raised by employees. Tovar is still being criticized by the teachers' union for failure to meet with them. Among the union's concerns are insufficient staffing at the agency's North Hills school and lack of union involvement in resolving internal disputes between teachers and supervisors.

"We're still trying to get [Tovar] to talk to us," said Dorothy Williams, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1475, which represents LACA instructors.

Tovar said that although her schedule doesn't allow her time to meet with the union, people on her staff had met and can continue to meet with the union.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 563 words Type of Material: Correction Head Start audit -- An article in Wednesday's California section about a Los Angeles County Office of Education audit of the Latin American Civic Assn.'s Head Start programs incorrectly said that Irene Tovar, the association's executive director, had never met with the teachers' union. Tovar met with union officials on several occasions last year.
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