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For years now, the Human Development Corp. has taken in millions of tax dollars to provide Head Start services for 2,500 of the city's low-income children. It has never come close. And the problems just begin there.

Smith and others at HDC say the biggest problem with sagging enrollment is the lack of full-day slots at Head Start, which are now needed in the aftermath of welfare reform. HDC is working with the city's public school district to use some of its facilities to provide full-day services. Smith says her agency is also looking at beefing up enrollment by providing a 24-hour service for those parents who do not work traditional 9-to-5 jobs. She says enrollment is up and the agency is now about 160 slots short of its requirement, though she cannot cite precise figures.

She concedes there are problems at HDC but she won't accept the blame. "My hands are really tied," Smith says. "We don't really run Head Start. The board of directors, who have fiscal overall legal responsibility, does not run Head Start. I don't run Head Start."

She refers again to the Policy Council, which must approve hirings in the program and has certain other supervisory responsibilities. The person who was ultimately hired as Head Start director, Wendell Campbell, was fired last year because, Smith says, he was "not performing." The person currently in the job on an interim basis is Willia Givens, another longtime HDC employee.

"She's been here 20 or 30 years. I appointed her," Smith says. "She was the only one who had been there awhile and knew the ins and outs of the program."

The Policy Council, meanwhile, changes membership every year, in December. Of the eight members who were listed on the board as of last month, most did not respond to calls seeking comment. One who did says she does not think she is allowed to publicly comment on the workings of the Head Start program.

Larry Hinton-Johnson is chairman of HDC's 18-member board of directors, which oversees Smith and selected her for the executive-director job. He has served on the board since he was 21. He's now 43. Hinton-Johnson defends the agency's work and says the issues raised in the prior federal audits are overblown.

He says the agency was "vindicated" when the appeals board overturned HHS's decision last year to terminate HDC's $11.6 million grant. He does not want to discuss any pending action by the federal government.

"In 33 years of providing services, we've never had any major problems such as misappropriation of money, misspent money or financial fiduciary irresponsibility," says Hinton-Johnson. "They say, "Enrollment, attendance, fiscal mismanagement.' Whoopee-doopee-do.

"They've had questions about us paying our bills late," he says. "Excuse me, but who the hell doesn't pay their bills late?"

Hinton-Johnson says that HDC's problems stem, at least partly, from its lack of many full-day slots. He says the agency is also facing increasing competition from other providers of daycare services, such as schools and home-based care by relatives, in a city with a shrinking population.

Still, he won't concede the federal audit found any severe problems in the agency.

On the low enrollment figures cited by the federal government, Hinton- Johnson simply disagrees with the federal definition of "enrollment."

"It all depends on how you define attendance and enrollment," he says. "We might have 1,800 attending in September. Enrollment is defined as any time you provide a service for those kids, you can provide a comprehensive social-service package. Then they might attend for one day and never attend again. You still have provided a service for them."

He says he's proud of the work HDC is doing. "We feel good about our program. We're not saying we didn't have deficiencies. In any major organization, you're going to have deficiencies. But none of it, in my personal opinion, ever warranted the termination of this program."

Board member Raymond Gamache says he is confident of the work HDC is doing. "As far as I'm concerned, the threat is over. Now we just have to make sure we do our job."

Ald. Gregory Carter (D-27th), also a board member, says many of the board members wanted to give up the Head Start program when the federal government announced it wanted to terminate the agency's contract. He urged them to fight and retain the program. Carter blames many of the lingering problems on issues that Smith inherited from Antoine: "During his tenure, there were quite a few problems there that the board of directors as well as Mrs. Smith is trying to correct."

Carter also sees sabotage as a problem. "It's very hard and very difficult -- we're trying to save it, and people out there are trying to destroy it," Carter says. "Right now, we're trying to run it under today's standards, and people who are there are still living in the late '70s as to how to run an agency. This is no fault of Mrs. Smith. She is the best thing to happen to HDC."

At Wesley House, where the former Head Start classroom is empty, Terry Jones misses the patter of little feet and the chatter of young children. "I miss the short people," Jones says. "They created a noise, a buzz that you like. They are hope."

More than a month has passed since the teachers and children cleared out, but the boxes of Head Start supplies, the furniture, rugs, toys and a refrigerator are still waiting for someone from HDC to pick them up. The fact that all the supplies remain there, Jones believes, is "a symptom of the problems they're experiencing."

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