Urban League appealing Head Start suspension

Attorney filing appeal, says feds didn't follow procedures

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – An attorney for the Jacksonville Urban League they are appealing the federal government's decision taking away management of the local Head Start programs.

In April, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suspended Urban League's contract to run Jacksonville's 24 Head Start centers due to safety concerns and unresolved code violations. Over the past year, the program was cited by the Florida Department of Children and Families for not having adequate background checks of employees, having toxic substances within reach of children, hazards or debris on outdoor play areas and leaving a child alone on a bus for hours.

For the remainder of the school year, Denver-based Community Development Institute has run Head Start's Jacksonville pre-school facilities, but that was only to be on an interim basis.

At a Tuesday news conference, Urban League Attorney Earl Johnson Jr. said the organization was blindsided by the suspension, saying the federal government broke the law in how the situation was handled.

"The regulations make it very clear that prior to any kind of suspension like the one we've had here there had to be notice to the Jacksonville Urban League and a chance for them to be heard. That did not happen," Johnson said. "We were notified by way of a fax when the suspension has already occurred. That's in direct violation of the law."

In the appeal released Tuesday, Johnson says they the Urban League should have been given advance notice with the opportunity to challenge the suspension according to federal code regulations, the Head Start Act and the U.S. Constitution.

Johnson says 12 of the 15 incidents the Urban League was cited for happened during the 2011-2012 school year, and that the Administration of Children and Families was aware of and confirmed the corrective action plan the organization taken to rectify the problem -- from policy changes and additional training to firing staff.

But ACF still stripped the Urban League of management of Head Start anyway.

Johnson said the management company that took over the local centers, CDI, re-hired some of the staff that had been fired for some of the violations that the ACF has complained about.

Last month, Johnson says the Urban League met with ACF to ask its contract to be restored. Johnson that instead, the ACF chose to suspend the Urban League indefinitely.

"We, the Jacksonville Urban League, are a part of the community, in touch with the community and, frankly, best able to serve this community," Johnson said.

ACF has not responded to a request for comment on the appeal and CDI's offices are closed this week.

The Urban League's appeals hearing, which has not been scheduled, will take place in Washington.