An unfunded federal mandate could spell the end of the Family and Early Childhood Education Program FECEP/Head Start, in Fairfax County as parents know it. The program is a free child-development program for children birth to age 5 from income-eligible families, including children with disabilities or special needs. It provides comprehensive services which address children's educational, social, health, nutritional and emotional needs and currently serves more than 1,100 children in 43 school sites countywide. However, only 242 of the children receive federal Head Start money, as do 12 of the school sites, the rest is state and/or local funding. Head Start is administered by the county's Office of Children and the school system is essentially a contractor to run the program.
Beginning in Jan. 20, 2004, all jurisdictions will be required to transport Head Start children in child-safety restraints and with at least one monitor in the vehicle. For the school system, that could mean a cost of more than $3 million for a program, that currently receives $1.8 million in federal funding. The county and school system portion of the program is a combined $7.8 million.
"I don't think that even the federal government is stupid enough to take [this deal]," said School Board chair Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill).
"We have never, ever had a Head Start incident in terms of transportation," said Nancy Sprague, assistant superintendent of Instructional Services. "We're not convinced we could hire all the monitors and it will end up costing us more than what we get in Head Start money for full compliance."
THE FEDERAL HEAD START bureau created the new safety mandates in response to jurisdictions that had been reportedly transporting child improperly in nonconforming vans. In four cases in the 1990s, the vans were involved in fatal accidents, including one that killed a Head Start child.
Fairfax County, however, transports its Head Start children on school buses, integrated with the other students. The requirements, said transportation officials, would not only cost the school system money, it would cost time and space on the buses. Dean Tistadt, assistant superintendent of the department of Facilities and Transportation Services said the harnesses, if they are styled after car child-safety seats, would take up more room on a seat than an unharnessed child. Further, the adult monitor would take up more room than a small child. In addition, because the monitor would have to secure each child in whatever harness that is used, it means bus-commute times will be longer.
"If we thought it was necessary from a safety issue, we would embrace it," Tistadt said.
There is also the issue of which restraints to purchase. To date, the federal government has yet to approve any; although one has received a provisional approval. Tistadt said that others approved in the past have since been rejected by the federal government.
Michael A. Molloy, the school system's federal lobbyist, said there has not been much of an outcry from other jurisdictions about the new requirements, because they are not facing the large expense to comply that Fairfax County is simply due to numbers. He said most have a smaller fleet of Head Start buses, rather than using an integrated method like Fairfax, because they have fewer Head Start children. Even so, he said he has been in touch with the local federal representatives in an effort to see if modifications can be made to the law or if an extension for compliance is possible.
IN THE MEANTIME, the transportation staff has come up with four options for the School Board to consider. The first is full compliance for all FECEP/Head Start children, which is projected to cost more than $3 million. The downside, however, is the school system's expected inability to hire all of the monitors needed and the potential for parents of older children wanting to know why restraints aren't necessary for their children.
The second option would be to comply, but only for the Head Start children receiving federal money. Once again, cost becomes a factor —it is projected to cost more than $646,000. There is also the potential issue among parents of certain Head Start children being restrained while others are not.
The third option would have the school system continue as it is while trying to lobby for changes in the requirement. The only cost would be the $241,150 already expended in restraints. However, there is the possibility the school system would permanently lose its Head Start funding.
Finally, the school system could create its own Head Start program. The cost for transportation would be the already purchased restraints. In addition, creating its own program could give the school system more flexibility in the future. Even so, the school system would lose its Head Start funding and the cost of creating its own program is unknown.
"We're not advocating at this point, that we pullout of Head Start. ... We would like to talk to our elected officials first and bring this to their attention," said Schools Superintendent Daniel Domenech. "If push comes to shove and the federal regulations stand, I think we may need to consider doing our own program and helping more children than we do now."
Some School Board members questioned the wisdom of the new regulations and whether or not there are hidden motives.
"If the federal government forces larger school districts out of the program, it saves them money and allows them to back out of the program entirely," said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville).