LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools is at risk of losing approximately $14 million annually in Head Start grant money due to a deficiency found in its management of the federally funded preschool program.

The Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, conducted a review of JCPS Head Start programs in Dec. 2013 and found three areas of non-compliance and one deficiency.

The deficiency pertains to JCPS not properly documenting it had obtained or arranged further examination by a certified professional for 15 children who were in need of treatment ranging from further dental care to hearing, developmental and social-emotional screenings that indicated a need for diagnostic testing.

"If (the) Jefferson County Board of Education wishes to continue to receive Head Start or Early Head Start funding, it must submit an application and compete with other entities in its community for the funding," wrote Ann Lineham, acting director of the U.S. Department of Human Health and Services' Office of Head Start in a Dec. 10 letter sent to the district.

Oldham County Schools was also notified via a similar letter it must compete for its $650,000 in federal Head Start aid due to an April 2014 incident where a special-needs preschooler was left unattended on a school bus for several hours.

JCPS serves 1,740 children in Head Start and 172 children in Early Head Start, while Oldham County serves approximately 70 children in those two programs. The federal preschool programs will still exist in the two counties for those children, however, it is not clear which agency will administer it.

“No matter what, the kids will still be served by Head Start, we just don't know at this point whether it will be us who will serve these kids or if it'll be another provider,” said Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer of JCPS. “Certainly, we want it to be us and we hope it will be us. Early childhood is so important and it's a top priority for this district.”

Kevin Nix, the director of early childhood programs for JCPS, said the reason why the district had a documentation program was due to the fact that there was not a unified student data system that would document where a follow up was made on a student's behalf.

“In many cases, we were keeping hand-written notes and entering the information into two systems – one called Child Plus and the other Infinite Campus, which is the state's online records and recording system,” Nix said. “When I broke down the numbers, it would have been impossible for our staff, given these two systems, to be able to record all of those documents in the timeframe that Head Start had set forth.”

At a minimum, each child has eight pieces of documentation that must be entered into a computer system. With approximately 2,000 Head Start and Early Head Start students – and currently two systems that must be used to properly document what needs to be documented – that's 32,000 documents that need to be entered, Nix said.

Since the deficiency was found, JCPS has hired additional staff to properly record the required documents and improved its technology.

“I've been uncovering things that happened before me,” said Nix, who was only in his current position about seven months when the review took place in 2013. “I want the opportunity to fix them.”

Hensley said the district is also working with the Kentucky Department of Education to improve Infinite Campus so that it can keep track of the required Head Start documentation.

“The fact that we've had a documentation issue is certainly not good,” Hensley said. “But we've welcomed the scrutiny of the federal government on this particular issue because Head Start is important to us.”

Hensley added: “This one documentation error will probably lead to a much improved system, not just for us, but for other districts who administer the Head Start program.”

Oldham County officials said they self-reported the incident involving the preschooler being left on the bus to Head Start.

“We undertook a number of corrective actions on our own above and beyond what they would have asked us to do,” said Tracy Green, a spokeswoman for Oldham County Schools. “We retrained all of our staff, we installed some new devices on buses that require a bus driver or monitor to complete a full check of the bus before they get off of it. Despite all of that, we were still found to be deficient because we did leave a child unattended.”

The two districts are among three Head Start grantees in Kentucky and 87 nationwide notified by the federal government they must re-compete for continued funding.

“We continue to hold providers to high standards for classroom quality and program integrity,” Lineham said in a prepared statement. “We are committed to ensuring our grantees maintain high-quality learning settings, promote healthy child development and deliver comprehensive family services.”

Head Start, which costs about $8 billion a year and serves a million children and families nationwide, has been under pressure in recent years to improve the quality of its program after a
found that children who were attending Head Start were doing no better than similar children who did not attend Head Start.

In 2011, under new federal regulations, Head Start began notifying grantees that if they did not meet all of standards of the program, they would need to re-compete for funds that would have renewed had no deficiencies been found.

Only those agencies that are found to be delivering high-quality and comprehensive Head Start or Early Head Start programs and are meeting the educational, health, nutritional and social needs of the children they serve and meet the program's requirements and standards may be designated for renewal and receive continued funding automatically without having to compete.

This is the fourth wave of Head Start grantees that have been told they must compete for their funding.

Some advocates for the 50-year-old program have launched some concerns over the way the federal government has handled the competition process, saying in some cases, minor compliance issues are causing grantees to fight for continued funding.

“There are 1,700 regulations that must be followed,” Nix said. “It is quite a complex system.”

In Jefferson County, the news that it may no longer receive Head Start funding comes at a time when it is trying to expand early childhood development in an effort to increase the number of students who are ready for kindergarten. 

Last summer, JCPS purchased the Presbyterian Community Center in Smoketown for $1.5 million so it can be used for early childhood classrooms.

In addition, early childhood education wings will be added at Atkinson and Maupin elementaries and at Stuart Middle, with another wing opening at the new Norton Commons school in the 2016-17 school year.

“We are going to do whatever it takes to ensure that we provide an early childhood program that supports our kids,” Hensley said. “And Head Start plays a very important role in our district.”

Green says officials in Oldham County have not yet decided whether they will apply to compete for the funds, although it remains committed to early childhood education programs.

“There are several options that the (school) board is going to look at,” she said. “We could reapply and receive the Head Start funding, another community agency can apply and could receive the funding or we could choose to serve those students and find other ways to fund it ourselves.”

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved