Shelby County Schools to Apply for Head Start Funding

By Bill Dries

A larger Head Start program run by the Shelby County Schools system would have a much smaller front office than the one through which Shelby County government administers the $23 million program.

And it would align the early childhood curriculum in Head Start centers with the curriculum used when those children start kindergarten in the Shelby County Schools system.

Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Monday, Oct. 14, he and his staff will apply for the federal funding by the Oct. 22 deadline.


“He envisions that the district would need approximately four additional employees that would work for the district,” said school board chairman Kevin Woods. “Unlike the Shelby County government system, which had approximately 500 employees operating its program, we would contract with early childhood providers to run those centers.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said Monday that Porter-Leath, a Memphis-based children’s and family services provider, will also make a bid for the Head Start contract now operated by county government.

Luttrell also said Monday he could foresee backing both applications once they are completed and he reviews them on their way to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I could see myself giving both of them support,” Luttrell said. “What I’m hoping we will have is two very superb applications. It would go to one entity – one contractor – and then that one contractor would sub it out essentially to delegate agencies, which is what we do. It’s what most Head Start operations do.”

Shelby County government administers Head Start through several delegate agencies, including Shelby County Schools and Porter-Leath. And if Porter-Leath didn’t get the federal funding, it could conceivably be a subcontractor to a Shelby County Schools-administered program.

Luttrell said last month that he wants to see the federal funding go to someone who has the ability to expand the early childhood development program beyond what county government has been able to do in the last decade.

“Porter-Leath has indicated they want to put more money into the program, and that money can go for expansion or improving buildings or an expansion of seats in classrooms. You can expand in two or three different ways,” Luttrell said. “What I’m hoping, though, is that some entity other than county government that has the potential to put more money into it would do that.”

Hopson said the school system's goal is to contract with Head Start providers, with the school system enforcing a set of rigorous standards to align the Head Start curriculum with what is expected of those children once they reach kindergarten in the Shelby County Schools system.

Such an alignment could represent an expansion. But Hopson’s first public discussion with the school board in September indicated he wanted to make sure the federal funding covered startup costs for such an alignment. Hopson cited the same tight financial situation as Luttrell did. Shelby County government is the only source of local public funding to the school system.

Luttrell said county government is unlikely to provide additional funding, which leaves private agencies, nonprofits or state and federal grants.

“I don’t foresee that we’re going to have the potential in county government to put money into it,” Luttrell said. “That’s why most governments are getting out of the Head Start business. Government can’t afford to sustain and support the need for Head Start. We’re only hitting maybe a third of the children in Shelby County that qualify for Head Start.”

But Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy said the decision should be about more than who can put up more money. When there was speculation over the last week that Shelby County Schools might not apply, Mulroy began drafting a resolution in which the commission asked Luttrell to submit a county government application just to have a public alternative to Porter-Leath.

“In part, it’s about that,” Mulroy said of the public-private discussion. “It’s a resolution that expresses concern about the wholesale rush to privatization without any competition with the public option.”

The resolution was one vote short of the seven needed to pass Monday, and the point became moot with word later that evening from Hopson.

“I think its crystal clear here – every Democrat that was present said to a person that we don’t like the current situation,” Mulroy said of only a Porter-Leath application for Head Start. “We want one public option on the table, and if it isn’t county schools, then it should be county government.”

Republicans on the commission didn’t agree. But they were supportive of both the school system and Porter-Leath, a decision that will be up to federal officials.

“There is a layer of bureaucracy that has to be funded with local government,” said commissioner Terry Roland. “The quicker we get this out of the county’s hands, the better off the children will be.”