Parents Seek Ouster of Denver Head Start Official
Allegations of mismanagement against a central figure in Denver's Head Start program have brought angry calls from parents that he resign and prompted a federal agency last week to order an investigation.
The controversy centers around Eddie Lee Brandon, the chairman of the board of directors for the Child Opportunity Program, a community-action agency that oversees 66 Denver Head Start centers serving 2,500 preschoolers. The agency last year received about $10 million in federal aid for the Head Start program.
Both parents and a Denver newspaper have charged that the behavior of the 69-year-old Mr. Brandon, who has been the chairman since 1969, has grown increasingly erratic. He is facing pressure to resign from the unpaid position amid a swirl of allegations about his professional and personal conduct.
As new criticisms surfaced last week, the Denver office of the federal Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notified Mr. Brandon that it would investigate the program.
Outrage Over Layoffs
His supporters, and even some of Mr. Brandon's critics, praise him for working tirelessly to build up the Denver program in his years of service.
But in recent months, the Denver Post has reported on a series of complaints against Mr. Brandon, from his approval of expensive center projects on his own to the layoffs of 32 Head Start employees with only two days' notice.
The Post turned up the heat on Mr. Brandon late last month with new information, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that he falsified expenses while working as a management analyst for the U.S. Air Force in the 1980s. Mr. Brandon is now retired from his job with the federal government.
The newspaper has also reported that Mr. Brandon physically harassed a television reporter and in another case destroyed a newspaper reporter's tape recorder and flushed the tape down a toilet.
Calls for Resignation
The federal Head Start program provides grants to local agencies to operate programs that combine education, health, and social services for disadvantaged preschoolers and their families.
The parent policy councils that oversee Head Start programs have a substantial say in making budget and staffing decisions for local centers. But they do not have the authority to fire an agency board chairman unless two-thirds of the board members agree.
In Denver, some policy council members as well as other parents, community members, and former board members have called for Mr. Brandon's resignation. But with the backing of most of his board members, many of whom are longtime supporters, he has steadfastly refused.
Parents and community members stepped up the campaign after Mr. Brandon ordered the layoffs of 32 center employees in February. Many of the employees were "special needs" assistants hired to provide extra attention to children with disabilities.
Tina Sperlak, a member of the policy council, said the layoffs have left teachers in the Head Start centers ill-equipped to serve children with physical and emotional problems and have caused "disruptive situations in the classroom."
No Irregularities Found
For the most part, Mr. Brandon has refused to speak publicly about the controversy, and he has barred most staff members from speaking to reporters. But in a brief telephone interview late last month, he said the layoffs were needed to make up for a 3.9 percent cut in federal Head Start funds a result of the continuing budget stalemate in Washington.
"Eighty percent of our budget is personnel and fringe benefits, so that was the only way we could meet the 3.9 percent cut," he said.
His critics, however, say the board had enough time to explore other alternatives and should not have let employees go with such short notice.
Mr. Brandon has declined to answer questions about the other allegations against him or to say whether he plans to resign.
Scottie Seawell, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families' regional office in Denver, said reviews of the city's Head Start program in recent years revealed no financial irregularities. "We haven't found anything that has come up in our reviews to say there has been a misuse of funds," she said.
The regional office held a training session recently to clarify the roles of members of the Head Start staff, the board of directors, and the parent council.
Some observers suggested that there are other ways the parent council could hold up the agency's business even if it can't fire Mr. Brandon directly. "Once the parents realize just how much control they do have available to them, the remedies may lie with them," said the Rev. Mervin Dick, a Mennonite minister whose church runs a Head Start program.
One Denver-area community group that has raised money for Head Start-related projects announced recently that it would not accept any more donations until the situation is resolved.
Last week, a coalition of parents called on the board to rescind the layoffs and release full fiscal statements, and said members who have served more than three years should step down within 90 days. The coalition also demanded that Mr. Brandon resign.