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Westmoreland Community Action to close 11 centers, dismiss 24

Rich Cholodofsky
| Friday, June 17, 2016, 11:05 p.m.
Seton Hill Child Care Inc. operates the Head Start center in Irwin.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Seton Hill Child Care Inc. operates the Head Start center in Irwin.
Seton Hill Child Care Inc. operates the Head Start center in Irwin.
Evan R. Sanders | Tribune-Review
Seton Hill Child Care Inc. operates the Head Start center in Irwin.

Cuts in funding linked in part to a federal citation for having a child left alone in a schoolyard at a Head Start site will force Westmoreland Community Action to close 11 of its centers and lay off 24 workers at the end of the month.

The cuts were confirmed by Community Action CEO Tay Waltenbaugh this week.

“We're still negotiating with Head Start what centers to close,” he said.

Waltenbaugh did not return several calls Thursday and Friday to talk about the issue that led to the reduced funding to his agency for the program that offers educational and other services to low-income children and their families.

Community Action last year received about $5.5 million from Westmoreland County to operate Head Start. The county's board of commissioners was the recipient of the federal funds and contracted with Community Action to coordinate the Head Start program.

The federal agency barred the county from having exclusive rights to the funding because of the citation and for the program receiving an inadequate performance rating from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Any agency (with deficiencies) ... during the course of the grant period is not eligible for funding without competition,” Health and Human Services spokesman Patrick Fisher said in an email. “Instead, the opportunity to provide Head Start services in that area is made available to any interested agency which submits a competitive application in response to a funding opportunity announcement.”

Community Action received $3.9 million this year, and Seton Hill Child Services won a $1.6 million federal grant for the program, which equals the overall funding received in 2015. Federal officials confirmed those agencies were the only ones in Westmoreland County that sought grant money for Head Start this year.

According to reports posted on the federal agency's website, Westmoreland County, as the lead agency for the local Head Start program, was cited in October 2013 after a 4-year-old at a center was left alone and unsupervised in an Irwin schoolyard for about 10 minutes. The crying child was found by a neighbor, who alerted staff at the center operated by Seton Hill Child Services Inc.

Community Action last year subcontracted with the Seton Hill agency to provide services to about 780 children. Officials at Seton Hill Child Services on Friday said Director Elisa Brady was unavailable and the agency will not comment on the Head Start program.

The federal report also found the Westmoreland County program was not meeting its standards for instruction criteria, scoring in the bottom 10 percent of all Head Start programs.

For more than a decade, the county commissioners applied for Head Start funding and then passed the money along to the nonprofit Community Action, which operated 29 centers.

This year, the commissioners' office did not seek the grant for Head Start. Human Services Director Dirk Matson said the county was told Community Action would apply for the grant on its own.

The county was never alerted about the problems identified by the federal agency, Matson said.

“My office was not notified about any deficiencies. It's concerning enough that I want to get more information,” Matson said. “It's a really important program for young kids and families in Westmoreland County.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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