Note: This story was last updated at 8:35 p.m.
Anderson County Schools director optimistic that resolution will be reached
By John Huotari and Sara Wise
They had concerns about the alleged falsification of federal documents that contained data on motor skills of children, so Anderson County school officials rejected Oak Ridge’s application for Head Start funding in the 2014-2015 school year.
The decision could affect roughly $700,000 in funding, or enough to cover about 118 students in the Oak Ridge Head Start program, a federal entitlement program for low-income children. Anderson County Schools supervises the local Head Start program.
But Anderson County Schools Director Larry Foster said the county school board’s unanimous April 10 decision could be rescinded based upon collaboration between the two school systems. Representatives of the two systems have already had discussions, and school board chairs are expected to discuss what can be done to resolve funding for next year.
“Hopefully, this can be resolved,” Foster said during a brief break in a Monday morning Anderson County Commission meeting in Clinton.
Borchers said the projected need for Head Start money for the 2014-2015 school year is $668,372 for program operations, $9,067 for training and technical assistance, and $169,360 in the non-federal share of funding, which includes cash and in-kind contributions.
Oak Ridge has until April 25 to appeal the county school board’s decision. Foster said the case is under federal review.
In the meantime, the Oak Ridge Preschool continues to operate normally, Superintendent Bruce Borchers said Monday. The county school board’s decision does not affect the Oak Ridge Head Start program this school year.
Foster said the alleged falsification was self-reported. He said he wasn’t sure why the records were falsified, but it might have been related to missing records.
The county school board’s vote came after a routine audit in January found irregularities in gross motor skills data reports filed by Head Start instructors in Oak Ridge. That data is one of many measurements required by the staff throughout the year.
Borchers said a gross motor skills screening requires preschoolers to complete activities such as standing or hopping on one foot, and that helps to monitor child development. The information can also be used to help determine what services a child needs, Foster said.
In a Tuesday message sent to school staff members and preschool parents, Borchers said the irregularities found after the January audit were promptly reported to school administrators by members of the preschool faculty and staff.
“Immediately upon receiving the report, Oak Ridge Schools administrators relayed the report to our colleagues at the Anderson County Schools, which is the supervisory authority over the entire local Head Start program,” Borchers said. “I also ordered a third-party investigation of the incident. That investigation led to a determination that certain members of the preschool staff had either failed to collect and record, or had improperly collected and recorded, gross motor skills measurements as required.
“In addition, the investigator determined that false gross motor skills data had been reported to the auditors when requested. Immediate steps were taken to correct the deficiencies, and discipline was promptly imposed on school personnel who participated in the false reports to the auditors.”
Borchers said Oak Ridge Schools has addressed and corrected all known deficiencies detected by its investigation, and discipline has been imposed by the superintendent’s office on all participants.
Former Oak Ridge Preschool Principal Melinda White resigned April 4, effective April 2, although Human Resources Director Christine M. Lee declined to say whether the resignation was related to the motor skills data. White was interim principal from May 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013, and she became principal on July 1, 2013.
Charlsey Cofer has been appointed interim preschool principal.
Borchers said the total enrollment at the Preschool, including for Head Start, is 224. Students in the Oak Ridge Head Start program are commingled with the state-funded preschool program. Children range in age from three to five years old, depending upon their birthdays. Borcher said there are now 10 Head Start teachers and 15 assistants.
He said a child must meet income-eligible guidelines that are set each year in order to be served in a Head Start program. A small number of kids are allowed to be 10 percent over the income guidelines, but they must have a significant reason to be in the program, including for occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech and language services, or significant family issues.
Foster said Anderson County has its own $2 million Head Start program that serves 279 children.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
John Huotari is co-owner and co-publisher of Oak Ridge Today. Sara Wise is a freelance contributor.