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Published in Print: March 2, 2005, as Head Start Agencies Adjust to Federal Salary Cap

Head Start Agencies Adjust to Federal Salary Cap

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Last year, congressional lawmakers outraged by scattered reports of six-figure salaries for Head Start administrators put in place a cap on how much employees of the federal preschool education program could be paid. This year, federal and local officials are figuring out how to make the pay limit work.

Guidance from the Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start, is expected soon to direct local grantees on how to implement the salary cap.

In a field where instructors are notoriously underpaid, the cap won’t be much of an issue for most Head Start programs. But for those that shell out big bucks to their local Head Start leaders, the limit should be taken seriously now, said Windy M. Hill, the Health and Human Services Department’s associate commissioner in charge of the Head Start Bureau.

“It’s the law, and they have a responsibility to comply and … abide by a salary cap,” Ms. Hill said. “It’s not optional. You’re not grandfathered in or out.”

Isolated Incidents?

Administrator salaries and alleged financial mismanagement are likely to be significant issues in the reauthorization in Congress this year of the Head Start Act. The $7 billion-per-year program, which is celebrating 40 years in existence, serves about 900,000 4- and 5-year-olds from poor families annually, helping to prepare them for kindergarten.

In 2003, headline-grabbing reports that a handful of Head Start administrators were being paid annual salaries of more than $200,000—and that one was leasing a Mercedes-Benz partially paid for with federal program money—sparked local and national criticism. ("Hefty Head Start Salaries Prompt Federal Inquiry," Oct. 22, 2003.)

At the time, Reps. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Michael N. Castle, R-Del., called for a review of the salaries of the highest-paid Head Start administrators and the amount of federal aid spent on meetings and travel. The Health and Human Services Department compiled a report that included a salary range of $175,828 to $303,559 for the top 25 Head Start executive directors.

A more comprehensive report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is due out in the next few months and is expected to affect the Head Start reauthorization legislation, said David Schnittger, a spokesman for the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“There is growing evidence a sizable share of that [federal] money never reaches the disadvantaged children it is intended to serve,” Mr. Schnittger said in an e-mail. “Instead, it is squandered, abused, lost, or wasted.”

In December, Congress included in the Health and Human Services Department’s appropriations bill a section that caps Head Start salaries at the federal government’s executive level II pay grade, which this year is $162,100, Ms. Hill said.

“Our general sense is that most agencies are paying salaries that are comparable” to salaries for similar positions in their areas, Ms. Hill said, “but certainly Congress was concerned by the number of salaries being reported that appeared to be excessive.”

Sarah M. Greene, the president of the National Head Start Association, a 14,000-member group that represents Head Start families and staff members, said her organization does not object to the cap, because the average executive director’s annual salary is about $58,500. Investigations have found only a few salaries that were out of line among some 2,600 Head Start programs across the country, she said.

“We honestly think this is laughable, and we’re not opposed to it,” Ms. Greene said of the salary cap. “Ninety-eight percent of Head Start staff are not making anywhere near that.”

Regaining Public Trust

Verona M. Hughes, the program director for the Community Development Institute Head Start program in Kansas City, Mo., said no one at her organization is earning anywhere near the cap. Her organization took over the program for the troubled KCMC Child Development Corp., which had been paying its executive director more than $300,000 a year.

“The impact of what Congress has done … is to ensure that salaries are within a range that is comparable to the community and to comparable programs,” Ms. Hughes said.

Ms. Greene expressed concern, though, that the Head Start program was targeted for the pay restriction based on isolated incidents, while other federal programs were not.

“We do feel it’s discriminatory to single out Head Start,” she said.

Ms. Greene pointed out that salary-comparability studies are required by the Head Start law, and that salaries are approved by local Head Start boards and reviewed by federal officials. “There are ample opportunities to correct any problems,” she said.

Ms. Hill said the salary issues would be addressed by the upcoming reauthorization of the program. Local Head Start programs that want to pay high salaries to their directors may still do so, but they “would have to find some other, non-Head Start source if they want to continue paying it,” she said.

Ms. Hill said Head Start programs do not have to return any salary money over the limit of the cap to the federal government. She suggested that programs use those funds to help pay teachers more.

Marvin Hogan, the executive director of Friends of Children of Mississippi Inc., a Jackson, Miss., organization that manages Head Start programs in 15 counties, said his salary of more than $100,000 a year doesn’t come close to the federal cap. But he said he hopes the limit on salaries helps the public regain trust in Head Start programs.

The publicity surrounding the high salaries “had a negative effect,” he said, though he cautioned that in some cases high salaries may be appropriate when leaders are managing relatively large Head Start organizations.

“I don’t think they’re unreasonable,” he said, “in some of the instances out there.”

Vol. 24, Issue 25, Pages 24,26

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