Head Start Contract in Wilmington NC Now up for Competitive Bidding

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January 5, 2012; Source: Star News | The Obama Administration’s attitude toward community action agencies was revealed a couple of years ago, when the President proposed a massive cut to the Community Services Block Grant program, and his aides intimated that the remainder of the CSBG program would be put out for competitive bidding. The subtext to community action agencies might have been read as an administrative attempt to undermine the generally exclusive use of CSBG by community action agencies as a mainstay of their funding.

Many community action agencies, perhaps most, also sponsor Head Start programs. The federal government is increasingly open to other bidders for Head Start contracts. In Wilmington, North Carolina, the Head Start program, long operated by New Hanover County Community Action, is one of 132 Head Start contracts that could go to other operators.

Community Action in Wilmington had to return $131,000 in Head Start moneys after a federal review, but the agency plans to compete to keep the contract. It is appealing the federal review and penalty, had made improvements in its finance office (including filling staff vacancies, which it says contributed to the problem), and argues that as an antipoverty agency, it is best qualified to deliver Head Start programs.

It faces competition. A new privately established day care center, Carr’s Academy, run by Pamela Carr, has “high interest” in applying for the Head Start funding. Carr admits to having no experience with Head Start, but cites her experience in running two day care centers in Florida before opening her Wilmington program as evidence of her capacity.

Another potential bidder is the New Hanover County Schools, whose staff are in “exploratory mode” about running a Head Start program. The chair of the Board of Education says, according to the Star News, that “he has received phone calls, mostly anonymous, from people concerned about the local Head Start program.” The director of another local nonprofit, Smart Start of New Hanover County, could also apply, but says that “It’s just a whole brand new idea that needs to be investigated.”

How much of the rebidding of Head Start contracts is due to the federal government’s desire to find better program operators, and how much of it is to undo a system of certain agencies’ assumption that Head Start contracts (or CSBG grants) are basically theirs by right, history, and (the War on Poverty) legacy?—Rick Cohen