Preschool funding is still an issue
School not open more than a year after taking over former Head Start building
By Lynn R. Parks
Nearly 16 months after winning its battle to lease the former Seaford Head Start building, Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. has yet to open its preschool. Representatives with the organization say that the city of Seaford, which owns the Front Street building, will not answer questions about grant money that the organization has received and that the city is administering. But city manager Dolores Slatcher says that the city has met several times with representatives of the organization, to explain what needs to be done. "We have sat down with them several times, to go through the process of what they need to do," Slatcher said. "Right now, we are just waiting on them." The Rev. Carlton Cannon, who is president of the board of directors for Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc., and Eugene Abbott, vice president, said that their group needs about $10,000 in start-up money, to purchase supplies for the classrooms. Right now, the men said, they have no idea where that money will come from. Cannon stops short of blaming the problems his group has encountered on race; volunteers with his group are largely African-American. But vice president Eugene Abbott believes that the group is not getting the help from the city that other groups would get. "If we were any other organization in the city, they would help us more," he said. "We are trying to do something to better the city," added Cannon. "We see kids who need help. You would think that the city would see what we are up against and would be able to help us to get started." The city has already helped, said Slatcher. City workers have done much of the demolition work that needed done, she said. They also fixed a furnace after the building's basement was flooded in June. "The city gave them use of the building, but they were going to have fund-raisers and raise the money to support the work that needed to be done there," she said. "They have to come up with the money to get this project moving." The Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. was granted a lease to the Front Street Building in January 2006, by a unanimous vote of the city council. That vote came after the Southern Delaware Center for Children and Families, which was operating the Head Start program in the building and in Bridgeville and Milford, was ordered in November 2005 to close its doors. The federal government said that a May 2005 inspection had turned up seven deficiencies, including immunization records that were not up to date and occasions when children were left unsupervised. The Southern Delaware Center filed an appeal of the federal government's findings. Director Carolyn Williams, who is also director of the since-formed Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc., said that the findings were the result of a "grudge" carried against the Southern Delaware Center by its overseer in the administration's regional office in Philadelphia. That appeal is still pending, Cannon said. A spokeswoman for the Office of Public Affairs at the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start centers, did not return a request for comment. After filing the appeal, members of the board of the Southern Delaware Center regrouped to form the Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. That group and the Community Development Institute, a group hired by the federal government to take over the Head Start program in Seaford, both asked the city to be allowed to lease the Front Street building. The vote to give the lease to Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. came after supporters of the organization packed the city council chambers to speak on its behalf. After the vote by the city council, Councilwoman Pat Jones cautioned representatives of Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. that passion alone for the preschool wouldn't make it successful. "I've heard you talk the talk, and it's time to walk the walk," she told the audience. "It's going to take the community to come together to make this work. We don't need you to just make plans. We need action. And I tell you, it's time to put your money where your mouth is." Then Councilman Larry Miller, who has since died, also cautioned the group. "I've got a lot of concern about how the group can fund andÉmaintain the program you want," he said. "And I am very concerned about the lease. We don't want to get in a situation where in six months or eight months, we tell you you have to vacate because the electricity hasn't been paid."
So far, the Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. has been able to keep up payments to the city for electricity. But, president of the board Cannon said, bills for utilities and insurance are being paid by members of the board. That means more than $1,000 a month coming out of the board members' pockets, he added.
And there is no mechanism to reimburse the board members.
After being granted the lease to the building, Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. received a $44,000 state grant for improvements to the structure. The grant is being administered by the city. About $30,000 of the grant is left, Slatcher said. But that grant is to pay for capital improvements only, she added. "That cannot be used for operations," or regular expenses like utility and insurance bills, she said. Making it even more difficult for the Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. is the fact that the grant will only reimburse the group for an expense that has already been paid. "You have to spend the money to get the money back," Slatcher said. The state grant requires a 60-percent match, meaning that for every 40 cents of the grant that is used, 60 cents has to be spent on the building from other sources. In-kind services can be used to meet the required match; indeed, members of the Seaford Child Development board have kept track of all the hours its members and volunteers have spent in meetings, hoping that they would count toward the match. But those hours "do not meet the conditions of the grant," Slatcher said. To count toward the match, volunteer hours have to be "sweat equity," actual physical work to improve the condition of the building. Volunteers have put in "sweat equity," painting rooms and laying carpet. But much of that work was done before the effective date of the grant, Slatcher said, and cannot be applied toward the match. The state grant money that has been spent on the building, about $14,000, was matched with money from a grant from Discover Bank. That grant, about $21,000 was given to Seaford Child Development and Partnership Inc. after a June 2006 flood that caused damage to the building. About three feet of water rushed through the building's basement, ruining two heaters and the kitchen, where volunteers had just put in new appliances. That flood, said Cannon, was the start of trouble for his organization. "Without that flood, we would have been sitting good," he said. "Last June, we were ready to roll. We were just waiting for our license. But it has been one thing after another since the flood." An examination of the building after the floodwater receded showed that drainage around the building was inadequate, Cannon said. Fixing the lot so that water would flow away from the building meant that the one outside exit from the basement had to be sealed up. And with no emergency exit, the basement, where the old Head Start program had served meals, could no longer be used for any preschool programs, including lunch. The organization has set aside an upstairs room for a kitchen. When the facility opens, Cannon said, children will bring their lunches to school. But the organization needs to purchase refrigerators to keep the lunches cold. Cannon said that last summer, more than 80 children were signed up to start school in the fall. But after all the delays, only 35 children are signed up now. And staff members with the old Southern Delaware Center for Children and Families who promised to come to work for the new organization have had to find jobs elsewhere. "We don't have any income coming in," Cannon said. "We feel like, if we could get open and get these kids in here, we would have some money and would be able to move forward. But the kids are slowly going other places." Despite the troubles they have encountered, Cannon and Abbott still feel that the preschool will open. "We've invested too much time and effort in this for it not to open," said Cannon. "Some of us don't even have children or grandchildren who would come here," added Abbott. "We are doing this just to help out the community."
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