Ever since Rockford’s stimulus funds scandal erupted over the summer, media coverage has focused on a peripheral issue: the fate of Rockford’s Head Start program. This has effectively distracted the public from the costly and embarrassing mistakes made by senior Human Services Department officials that led to the scandal. Rather than focusing on the lack of oversight and accountability, the public’s outrage has been misdirected toward a phony issue involving Head Start. Here is how it happened.
In July of this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General released the results of a partial audit of Federal stimulus funds given by the State of Illinois to Rockford in 2009. The Inspector General found $205,296 was used for “unallowable” reasons under the terms of the Recovery Act award. A further $141,796 was deemed “potentially unallowable.”
After conducting a review of the audit, the City of Rockford released a memo outlining its findings. City Administrator James (Jim) Ryan recommended that Rockford “return” $298,671.84, establish a Grant Program Compliance section within the Rockford Finance Department, and restructure the Rockford Human Services (HS) Department. The $298,671.84 would come from “recaptured loan funds” and Rockford’s Redevelopment Fund.
In his memo, Jim Ryan repeatedly stated that senior Rockford Human Services staff were aware of the Federal guidelines for the stimulus funds and failed to follow them. “The requirements were made clear from the beginning,” he wrote on page 14, “and the City organization and Rockford Human Services Department fell short of administering the grant in accordance with federal regulations.”
Despite costing the City and taxpayers nearly $300,000, in addition to significant embarrassment, to my knowledge not a single person has been held accountable for these mistakes. Instead, Jim Ryan recommended giving HS Department Executive Director George Davis a new job title and new responsibilities, while folding the HS Department into the Community & Economic Development Department.
The City’s Head Start program, which is currently managed by the Human Services Department, would be transferred to another agency, possibly a nonprofit organization or School District 205. It was the Head Start recommendation that has dominated news coverage of the stimulus funds scandal. In its Sept. 5 article about the stimulus memo, the Rockford Register Star devoted several paragraphs to the fate of Head Start. It mentioned nothing about who might be responsible for the mistakes that led to the scandal.
On Friday September 19, the Register Star published an opinion column by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Board incorrectly stating that the Federal stimulus funds had been earmarked for Head Start. Pastor Board accused city officials of diverting Federal funds away from needy children. A retraction was printed the next day. Pastor Board explained, “The mayor has caused confusion by correlating repayment of the $300,000 with changes he wants to make to the Human Services Department and Head Start.” He wondered why Head Start was being targeted to fix a problem it didn’t create.
At the City Council meeting on Monday Sept. 23, the public gallery was filled with Head Start staff and clients who were there to express support for the program. No less than three spoke during public participation time. All seemed to believe the City was getting ready to eliminate Head Start. Mayor Larry Morrissey, who usually defends himself or the City when misunderstandings of this magnitude occur, was strangely silent on the matter. He calmly sat back while person after person spoke passionately against the nonexistent cuts to Head Start. Alderman Ann Thompson-Kelly had to explain that no one had suggested Head Start be cut or eliminated, just transferred to another agency.
On October 18, as though the subject hadn’t been discussed enough, the Register Star devoted an entire article to Head Start and the proposed changes. It was only because I submitted a guest column to the Register Star that any discussion of who might be responsible for the misspent stimulus funds appeared in Rockford’s daily newspaper.
There are only two possible explanations for this. 1) It was the result of bad reporting and a series of misunderstandings. 2) It was a purposeful attempt to drum up a phony scandal and distract from a very serious ethical issue. Both scenarios have the same outcome: misdirection. By focusing on Head Start, the public’s attention was drawn away from the most important and damaging elements of the stimulus scandal. The Head Start issue always has been, and always will be a Red Herring.
Michael Kleen is an author, publisher, and local historian. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and M.A. in History from Eastern Illinois University and M.S. in Education from Western Illinois University. He lives in Rockford, Illinois where he owns and operates Black Oak Media, Inc.