Head Start Director Criticized On Past Tenure

By Michelle R. Davis — April 21, 2004 3 min read

The National Head Start Association called last week for the resignation of the director of the federal preschool program, citing alleged financial irregularities in a Head Start agency in Texas that she directed.

Association officials said Windy M. Hill, who leads the Head Start bureau within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, should step down because of an outside audit and a federal review showing financial problems that occurred from 1993 to 2002, while she headed Cen-Tex Family Services Inc., a Head Start agency based in Bastrop, Texas. Ms. Hill joined HHS in January of 2002.

Irregularities found in the audit are similar to ones Ms. Hill has targeted for criticism in current Head Start programs in other states, said Sarah Greene, the president of the NHSA, a private organization representing Head Start staff members and families.

Ms. Hill “has trashed programs across the country,” Ms. Greene said in a conference call with reporters on April 13. “To think that she was, at the same time, benefiting from a cover-up of her own misconduct during her tenure as head of a Head Start agency is simply astonishing.”

The Bush administration stood behind Ms. Hill last week, but neither she nor the administration answered the NHSA’s charges directly. An HHS spokesman said Ms. Hill would not comment.

Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department, called the association’s charges a “mean-spirited and unwarranted attack on her integrity.”

“Rather than engaging in the politics of personal destruction, I encourage the NHSA to focus along with us on ensuring that every child who enrolls in Head Start receives a program of the highest quality,” Mr. Horn said in an April 13 statement.

The NHSA and the Bush administration have been feuding over changes—some already in the works—to the program, including the testing of 4- and 5-year-olds on literacy and math skills. The association has led a vigorous public relations counter offensive against the administration’s plans. (“Head Start Imbroglio a Struggle for Hearts, Minds, Votes,” June 18, 2003.)

Nationwide, Head Start serves about 900,000 preschoolers from poor families. Local agencies have found themselves under scrutiny on management issues, and the disclosure of six-figure annual salaries for some local Head Start directors has prompted a federal review. (“Hefty Head Start Salaries Prompt Federal Inquiry,” Oct. 22, 2003.)

Action Plan Demanded

The NHSA released an Oct. 21, 2002, letter from the Health and Human Services Department to Cen-Tex that details what the federal department viewed as accounting and administrative problems in the local agency. The letter says one employee received three large bonuses over an 18-month period even though no bonus program was in place. The letter also states that the bonus payments were made outside the agency’s payroll system and “were not taxed nor reported to [the Internal Revenue Service] as income for the employee.”

Ms. Greene said that the employee referred to in the letter is Ms. Hill.

The letter also says that some employees were paid for large amounts of accrued vacation time. Ms. Greene said Ms. Hill was paid for 634 hours of leave time, even though Cen-Tex had a policy of not allowing employees to accrue more than 80 hours of leave and had no policy for “buyouts.”

The HHS letter demanded that Cen-Tex file a “corrective action plan” addressing the federal department’s concerns. The NHSA obtained the letter under the Freedom of Information Act.

In addition, Ms. Greene alleged that under Ms. Hill’s leadership, Cen-Tex violated federal grant requirements by overbilling the government by more than $140,000 and then moving that money into a Cen-Tex bank account.

Mary Garcia-Todd, the current executive director of the Cen-Tex Head Start program, said she discovered the irregularities when she took over as director following Ms. Hill’s departure and alerted both the local agency’s board of directors and the regional Head Start office in Dallas.

“I was quite disturbed,” she said. “I’m completely baffled by what happened here.”

Since the audit, Ms. Garcia-Todd said the organization has taken action to address the audit’s findings.