Head Start, Parish Government at Odds Over Authority

Parish Council Member Chris Paige holds up the Head Start Act manual at the Monday meeting. Paige and Parish Council Chair Pat Ward-Hoover were in agreement with members of the Head Start Policy Council who object to how the early childhood program is run. From left are Parish Council Clerk Sheryl Frederick, Ward-Hoover, Paige and Parish President Rick Nowlin. The meeting started at 5:30 p.m. and was over just before 9 p.m. Photo by Carolyn Roy

By Carolyn Roy

The question at the marathon meeting of the Parish Council Monday evening was, who should run Head Start?

It took nearly 2 and 1/2 hours for two sides to express opinions about who should run the early childhood education program but neither side convinced the other.

Head Start Policy Council chair Shirley Layton and council member Dr. Gloria Smith spoke for those who believe Parish President Rick Nowlin is trying to run Head Start as he does Parish Government but without authority to do so. “Because we are speaking up, we are the enemy,” Smith said. “Everything is not OK at Head Start.

They believe that Head Start is a federal entity, not subject to Parish Government oversight and the Policy Council should be the governing body of Head Start.”

There were numerous complaints but a major one was that Nowlin fired former Head Start director Dr. April Wade last month without notifying the Policy Council. Parish Council Chair Pat Ward-Hoover sided with members of the Head Start Policy Council.

They contend that a recommendation by some Policy Council members that Wade be fired was made during an illegal meeting July 25 at which there was no quorum. They believe Nowlin should have gotten approval from the Policy Council before the firing and he should have stated reasons for doing so. They also want Wade returned to the job.

They asked how the Head Start director is a parish employee since the director is paid by a federal grant.

They say that a section of the Head Start Act states that “The policy council shall approve and submit to the governing body decisions about… program personnel policies and decisions regarding the employment of program staff…including standards of conduct for program staff, contractors and volunteers and criteria for the employment and dismissal of program staff.”

They were also critical of Nowlin for signing Head Start documents rather than getting Ward-Hoover to sign them as they believe is stated in Head Start guidelines. Ward-Hoover said several times that Nowlin failed to inform the governing body, the Parish Council, of problems at Head Start including his reasons for firing the former director. She believes Wade had no due process to appeal the firing.

After suspending the 3-minute rule for responses from the audience, discussion about Head Start continued until 7:54 with the meeting having started at 5:30 p.m.

There were few comments from other Parish Council members with Ward-Hoover and Chris Paige dominating. But Parish Council member Russell Rachal entered the fray with criticism of Ward-Hoover. “You’re far from an attorney,” he told her. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Nowlin did not respond for a long time but answered criticism from Layton who said Head Start needed a director.

“I agree that Head Start needs a director,” Nowlin said, and then announced that he hired Chrisella Metoyer who was approved by the La. Licensing Board. He said Metoyer was to be on site Tuesday.

Nowlin said it was obvious that there was a difference of opinion on what the law required about Head Start. He believes Head Start is part of the Office of Community Services, a Parish Government department, and therefore is governed by the Home Rule Charter form of government.

He said Head Start regulations refer to a governing board, in this case, the Parish Council, and the grantee for Head Start is the Parish of Natchitoches, therefore the parish president and parish council. “Head Start should follow the state and local statues that includes the Home Rule Charter,” Nowlin said.

He has relied on opinions from Assistant District Attorney Shantel Wempren who was also at the meeting.

Wempren provided documentation in the Affirmative Action Plan from 1992 governing the Office of Community Services (OCS). That was approximately the time when the Parish first became the Head Start grantee. Head Start is listed as a program under OCS that also includes commodities, LIHEAP Energy, child and adult care food and weatherization.

It was her opinion that the governing body is Parish Government, which is a president-council form of government operating under the Home Rule Charter.

The Office of Community Services, a department under the Parish Government, is the designated “Head Start Agency.”

The “Head Start Program,” is operated under the OCS Department and is subject to the Home Rule Charter.

After much discussion and accusations, Wempren said the answers to the questions posed by Ward-Hoover, Paige, Jones and Layton would “depend on a court of law.”

Those opposing Nowlin’s actions said the questions would best be settled by representatives of Head Start in the Dallas district that includes the local Head Start centers. They plan to contact the Dallas office for more opinions.