- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

A U.S. district judge has rejected a bid by a Head Start trade group to block a federal survey of Head Start leaders’ salaries and travel expenses.

“The public has a strong interest in the effective and transparent administration of federal grant programs,” U.S. District Judge John D. Bates said in his Jan. 20 ruling, which denied the National Head Start Association’s (NHSA) request for a temporary restraining order on the survey.

The Department of Health and Human Services has the authority to monitor spending in the federal preschool program and the public interest “may be well served” by the salary survey, Judge Bates said in the case, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The HHS salary inquiry was requested in October by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, and Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican, chairman of the subcommittee that wrote the House Head Start bill.

The House leaders were dismayed by news stories that found some Head Start leaders had salaries of $200,000 to $300,000 and generous stipends for luxury cars and out-of-town travel. Head Start teachers typically earn $21,000 a year.

In December, HHS’ Head Start Bureau asked about 2,500 Head Start centers to report three years of salaries and administrative expenses for their executive directors and directors. The surveys were due Friday.

In its lawsuit, filed Jan. 14, NHSA argued that the survey was an arbitrary, capricious burden on Head Start centers. The association also warned that the survey data were intended to be used “by actors in Congress or others” to “malign the reputations of highly compensated Head Start program directors.”

Judge Bates acknowledged the NHSA’s concerns — information is sometimes used maliciously “in the political rough-and-tumble of Washington,” and it would be “unfortunate” if the survey information was used to “discredit Head Start programs as profligate,” he wrote.

However, “the public’s interest in transparency is predominant,” and HHS has the authority to ask about how Head Start money is spent, he concluded.

Mr. Boehner said Friday that the NHSA lawsuit “was a big step backwards on the road to restoring public confidence in the Head Start system.”

“Members of Congress will almost certainly be asking why we are providing a $148 million increase in funding this year for a program that resists public scrutiny and does not allow states to have any significant role in its oversight,” Mr. Boehner said.

In a Jan. 21 letter to Head Start members, Sarah Greene, NHSA president and chief executive, and Ron Herndon, chairman of the NHSA board of directors, restated their belief that the survey is intended to “manufacture a scandal” about Head Start.

The $6.7 billion-a-year federal Head Start program, which serves 912,000 poor children, expired last year. The House last year passed a bill by one vote to renew the program, thanks to NHSA and Democratic opposition. A Head Start bill with less dramatic reforms passed unanimously in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and awaits consideration by the full Senate.

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