Head Start-Parish Government: Where are the Boundaries?

The Head Start Policy Council is the program’s major decision-making body. The Council is composed of parent representatives and representatives of community agencies, but at least 51 percent must be parents of children enrolled in the program. Seated at table, from left, are Delores Bivins, Yolanda Brittain, Clinetta McKinney, Dr. Gloria Smith, Doreen Martin and chair Shirley Layton. Photo by Carolyn Roy

By Carolyn Roy

The chairman of the Head Start Policy Council believes Parish President Rick Nowlin and Parish Government employees have wrestled authority from the Council and she hopes mediation will help settle the problems.

Shirley Layton is chairman of the Head Start Policy Council, the board’s major decision making body, that shares governance, with its sponsor, Parish Government, regarding decisions about program goals and plans, setting program policies and procedures, budget allocations and personnel functions. The board is supposed to represent parent decisions on program design and implementation.

Layton says Parish Government employees attend the monthly Parish Council meetings and, “They are constantly talking, they’re out of order, they belittle the parents. They conduct another whole meeting during the Head Start meeting.”

She believes Nowlin has “overstepped his boundaries” by signing budget documents sent to headquarters in Dallas, rather than letting Head Start personnel and Policy Council members sign them. She believes that could threaten the remaining Head Start grant.

The conflict between the Head Start Policy Council in Natchitoches and Parish Government has been escalating in the past few months and began with a letter from former director Dr. April Wade to the Parish Council April 17, alleging inappropriate conduct by Parish Council Clerk Sheryl Fredrick during a Policy Council meeting.

The Parish Council upheld Fredrick’s actions with Nowlin saying she acted appropriately.

Then Nowlin fired Wade June 30 and appointed Office of Community Services Director Sharon Harris as the interim. Facebook posts on Sunday stated the Natchitoches Head Start Center would close because the “parish president is operating without license! Come to the rally on the corner of Amulet & MLK.”

She points to members of the Policy Council who sent a letter to Nowlin and the Parish Council recommending the firing of Wade. Layton says some of the members of that board were carry-overs from the previous board and their seats were never ratified. She believes their recommendations should not have been processed by Nowlin without consulting other council members. ”That recommendation should be null and void. Their vote was illegal.”

Layton says the main concern now is what she calls a question about qualifications of Harris.

Layton believes Harris does not hold the qualifications required of a director since the interim should possess the same qualifications as a regular director.

Layton says that could jeopardize the licensing process expected to take place Aug. 31. If found in violation, the centers could face fines of up to $1,000 per day for each center.

Layton says her goal is to strengthen the board and increase the number of members.

Her hope is that Head Start will bring in a mediator who can resolve the problems between Nowlin and the Policy Council. “We are at an impasse,” Layton says.

Parish Council member Pat-Ward Hoover says Parish Council members are not being given information about problems on the Policy Council and at the Head Start Center by either Nowlin nor Harris.

An announcement from Parish President Rick Nowlin Monday about the fate of the Head Start program only underscores problems. Nowlin’s announcement denied he has recommended closure of any kind at any of the Head Start Centers and does not plan to do so. The release was responding to what it said were articles posted on social media claiming he wanted to close Head Start. “This press release is being issued to inform the public that Mr. Nowlin has not recommended the closure of any of our Head Start centers, nor does he plan to do so. Mr. Nowlin has been, and still is, a strong supporter of the Head Start program.”

The release said Parish programs cannot be terminated unless there is a vote of the Parish Council and Nowlin “knows of no such plans for any vote.” It further states that the Parish has begun the process to hire a new Head Start director and that would not be a priority if the Parish planned to close the program.