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Posted on Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:58 a.m.

Washtenaw County officials bicker over Head Start options - including shift to WISD

By Ryan J. Stanton

Another emotional meeting of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners culminated Thursday night with back-and-forth bickering between commissioners.

At the center of the debate was a proposal by the county's administration to cut funding for Washtenaw County Head Start in 2013.

County Administrator Verna McDaniel's proposed two-year budget recommends the county withdraw as the grantee for Head Start, an early childhood program designed to help break the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with services to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and educational needs.


Conan Smith

The county's budget shows a line item for Head Start that increases from $4.72 million to $4.85 million for calendar year 2012. However, it shows that line item zeroing out in 2013 as officials explore seeking another administrator for the program.

Head Start serves more than 500 preschool children in the county and employs about 35 full-time employees. The bulk of the program's budget is made up of federal funding, while about $528,000 comes from the county’s general fund.

The administrator's proposed two-year budget recommends continuing that $528,000 expenditure in 2012, but that would zero out in 2013 under the current proposal.

That's just one of many cuts in the proposed budget, which addresses a $17.5 million structural deficit in the general fund. The board aims to adopt a final budget on Nov. 16.

The idea of having an organization like the Washtenaw Intermediate School District take over administration of Head Start has been talked about for months, and comments made at Thursday's meeting suggest that's still a possibility.

"We're not here to get rid of Head Start," stressed County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor. "That is not my goal, and that's not the vote that I want to take."

Smith said he hasn't talked to a single commissioner who questions the value of Head Start, but he said the county shouldn't think it's the only organization that can provide the program.

"If we reduce our budget allocation to Head Start, the only way that's going to get my vote is if I'm comfortable and confident that there is another excellent provider who's going to make sure that this service stays in Washtenaw County," Smith said.


Ronnie Peterson

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, dominated the discussion, speaking out angrily about the cuts and accusing fellow county officials of playing "politics with children."

"If you say children come first, you stick by your conviction," Peterson said at one point during a verbose speech, receiving applause from audience members — many of them parents and teachers who came to voice support for Head Start.

Peterson said he feels he's been left out of the loop on discussions about passing off Head Start to the WISD or another organization.

"I'm a sitting commissioner and I did not know that discussion was taking place," he said. "I have been left out of the loop, and that's nothing unusual, but I'm pretty upset about it."

He accused fellow county officials of having secret back-room discussions, which he called mean, cruel and offensive.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, who chaired Thursday's working session, told Peterson he also hasn't been involved in any discussions with the WISD.

"I don't know what conversations were had," said Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor. "But in terms of the process, you're absolutely right. If the county were to give up being the grantee, it would be out of our hands basically at that point. And even if the WISD expressed interest, it doesn't necessarily mean they'll be the ones to pick it up."

Commissioners heard a brief presentation from Pat Horne McGee, director of the Head Start program. She told commissioners Head Start has been cutting back for years.

Peterson said it's unfortunate cuts to children's program are being made when the county administrator recently proposed $15,000 pay increases for top county officials.

"Where did that money come from?" he said. "We're faced with an economic challenge, but the challenge ain't that great when you're giving out $15,000 bonuses."


Wesley Prater

Peterson and Prater both made statements suggesting there are 16 different county departments receiving increases in funding in the proposed general fund budget. Prater said he's added it up and those increases total more than $6 million.

Smith stepped in to argue that Prater and Peterson were mistaken. He said what appear to be increases to some line items in the budget are really reallocations of internal expenses that were previously allocated to single lump-sum lines.

"So people's budgets are not dramatically increasing as it seems like they are from those numbers," he said, criticizing Peterson particularly for not being at meetings "to listen to these explanations about the budget that he needs to vote on."

General fund expenditures are going down from $99.4 million to $97.7 million in 2012, dropping further to $96.9 million in 2013, the proposed budget shows.

"The actual dollars that we have are going down," Smith said. "Those line items, those departments, are not getting overfunded. This is a tight budget with no fat in it."

Smith and Prater continued to go back and forth for several minutes, each offering different interpretations about the county's proposed budget.

"Not true. Absolutely not true," Prater said of Smith's arguments. "You're playing with numbers, my friend."


Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Two hours into the meeting, Commissioner Rolland Sizemore Jr., D-Ypsilanti Township, tried to break the tension in the room with a light-hearted comment.

"Hi, guys. Are we having a good time out there tonight?" he asked members of the audience, smiling at them. Audience members responded in unison with an emphatic "no."

Sizemore went on to say he sits on the board of Head Start and thinks it's an excellent program, and one worth saving.

"There are ways that we may be able to find some money," he said. "I think the county has some buildings that we need to look at that we're renting or leasing, that maybe we don't need. So there may be some money in those pockets."

Sizemore specifically mentioned the county's western service center on Zeeb Road, which he said is about half-empty.

"We could maybe move some staff over there and stop paying rent and get rid of some of our buildings," he said. "That's an option I'm willing to look at."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's e-mail newsletters.



Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1:07 a.m.

Lets see here. They can't run a transportation department so why does one thing they can run head start? WISD has no clue and is totally clueless. Leave WISD to what they know best, special ed and that is it. They have run the three transportation dept to the ground, so I guess head start is next. Good luck Washtenaw county. Glad I am gone.


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 12:15 a.m.

Maybe it's time for UM to give back some of the massive tax revenue funding lost by their land grab via a nice fat check to preserve Head Start Funding by committing to a $500K funding per year with cost of living expense for at least 10 years.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 5:45 p.m.

@Ryan Stanton, thanks for the info! So, are the matching funds required because the county has $360,000 more in indirect costs than what the Federal Head Start Program rules allow, or for some other reason?

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 12:03 a.m.

The cost for the bonds to pay for the new school building may be the answer (see my reply to your earlier comment above).

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 4:02 p.m.

The county's administration actually has identified the potential savings to the general fund to be $360,000. I asked for an explanation of that and here's what Kelly Belknap, interim deputy county administrator, told me via email: "The $360K is net realized savings for the general fund. That figure is obtained by taking the full GF appropriation of $528K less the amount the grant actually pays for indirect costs which is $167K."

Ron Granger

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 3 p.m.

"Commissioner Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, dominated the discussion, speaking out angrily about the cuts and accusing fellow county officials of playing "politics with children." ... He accused fellow county officials of having secret back-room discussions, which he called mean, cruel and offensive." Really? Can't we possibly keep the meetings professional and free of drama? This sounds more like a Detroit City Council meeting. If there are violations of the open meetings act, then by all means seek remedy. But don't make it some big drama with words like "mean, cruel and offensive". And, any politician who plays the "think of the children" drama card should just leave politics and go start a daycare or something.

Ron Granger

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 2:56 p.m.

Whenever I see Conan Smith, I am reminded that he owes the people of this county money and I wonder why we have not hired a collection agency to recover it.


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 1:29 p.m.

Thank you Commissioners Peterson and Prater, especially for bringing up the $15,000 increase in pay for doing a little extra work. I have never seen a UNION member get extra money for extra work except for a temporary assignment. We keep losing staff but the work is still the same and we always have to take on extra duties, and we do not get extra pay for them. The Warming Shelter costs $80,000 to run, why does anybody think that admistrative staff who make over $100,000 deserve that money, instead of taking care of the homeless, many this year,who will be children. How can anybody with any heart accept such an increase when you know people will be freezing, while you spend that extra money on a vacation to a warm location. ETCS has 4 supervisors, 3 of which make a $100,000, they won't even be providing services, just taking their (adminstrative costs) cut and then pass it to private companies who have no regulations to follow. How much of that money will go to cover adminstrative costs. Less for the poor, more for the rich. The unions have taking extreme cuts, make the departments do the same. TAKE A GOOD LOOK at the Counties so called open checkbook, look how much money is spent under Miscellaneous, and how the same item is listed differently in different department. Really ask staff to make suggestions and this time do not let the adminstration disregard them because it will make too little of a change, any change, however small helps a budget. Please do not give away $75,000 to rich people, please give it to the poor who need. They will be voting too, come next election.


Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 1:10 a.m.

Actually they are going to give it to their new director. Remember? WISD never mentioned how much they are paying the new director. So if I am thinking correctly, they have money to pay her from the transportation dept they took from three districts and now they want head start money to pay her and their croonies? O my. Glad I am no longer in this district.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 1:16 p.m.

Head Start is a proven program that reduces the number of children who later fail out of school. Unfortunately today, 21%-23% of our children leave public school as functional illiterates and without Head Start even more would. Many of those children who fail out of school are then a burden on society. Michigan at just the state government level spends for example some $2 billion a year on prisons. So, we either take care of these kids on the front side of life, or we take care of some of them on the back side of life to the tune of over $30,000 a year. I've got some questions about why we are spending over $5 million a year for just 500 children in the Head Start program here in Washtenaw County. That's over $10,000 per child. First of all, why only 500 children served in a county of over 300,000 people where 21%-23% of the kids ultimately need the head start? Does the program require the roughly $500,000 in county momey as matching funds or is the county's contribution required because the program is more expensive than what the Feds will pay for? Is there any flexibility in the federal program? My three year old son just started pre-school at Triangle Cooperative Nursery School. It costs about $290 a semester. Because it's a cooperative, the 39 families have to volunteer on different days on a cycle, so that the only expense is for the teacher, as the parents are the teacher's assistants. Also the facility is free since a local church donates the use of their sunday school rooms. If anyone has some answers, I'd appreciate it!

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Oct 22, 2011 : 12:02 a.m.

The county is only the grantee for the Ypsilanti area. It built a new school for that program less than 10 years ago and is still making the payments for that school. We were told at the time that the federal rent payment would pay for the construction, but that was shown to be untrue almost immediately and the county is making payments from its own funds. At the time we were told that Ypsilanti schools would no longer provide the space for the Head Start program so that we were forced to build the school to continue the program. We were also told that there was no suitable space anywhere in the Ypsilanti area that could be rented for that purpose. I'm not sure which part of the figures in the story correspond to the payments for the school, and whether the county would have to continue to pay for the construction bonds. I suspect that they are full-faith-and-credit bonds, so the county is probably stuck with that expense regardless of the fate of the program. Head Start for the rest of the county outside of Ypsilanti is administered through the respective school districts. Does the line item amount of about $5 million include pass-through money for school districts that host their own Head Start programs?


Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 8:57 p.m.

Please verify for me your statement, "Head Start is a proven program that reduces the number of children who later fail out of school." There is no conclusive evidence in recent studies by the Department of Health and Human Services that Head Start is an effective program. Most of what is cited as effectiveness by supporters is based on a 50 year longitudinal study that is perhaps not really valid today. Rather than tug on the emotional heart string of people, the program administrators should provide some concrete proof that our local program is effective in preparing children to transition to regular school. I've not seem that proof. As a taxpayer, I would like to know what level of benefit my investment in the program is reaping for the community. Are the kids ready for regular school when they leave Head Start? Are there concrete proof that our local kids are academically successful in the long term?. Is there concrete proof that kids who participate in Head Start less likely to be involved in the juvenile of criminal justice systems as you suggest( I would suggest that you do an informal survey in our local juvenile system of the jail and see how many of these individuals went to Head Start). I agree, that an investment in our kids now is better than paying $30,000 a year on the back end is a much wiser choice but I also think its time that we demand some accountability from these programs. I am a supporter of early childhood education but rather than funding the same program from one year to the other without any proof that we are getting results is absolutely irresponsible management of resources. Also, I would recommend the county look at some of these high priced administrative positions to see where savings can occur. Perhaps these excessive payments can be diverted to supporting programs such as Head Start. We don't want to become another Wayne County.

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Oct 21, 2011 : 11:05 a.m.

So why are Commission members being left out of the loop? I guess the kind of political leader who is fine with State Emergency Managers would be fine with secret, closed door discussion and decisions too. Mr. Smith, have you paid back the dollars YOU owe the County yet?