Aliquippa Head Start move thwarted by community action

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by Joby Brown

(BEAVER COUNTY)—The plan to displace 150 children, ages 3, 4 and 5, and furlough 14 employees from Aliquippa Head Start, located at 1200 Main St. in the Plan 12 neighborhood of the city has been turned back by concerned citizens, headed by protest organizers, George Powell and Sandra Gill with help from Mayor Dwan Walker; the Head Start building owner, Tony Alam; and Attorney John Havie.

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WALKER TWINS DONALD AND DWAN

The Head Start administrator, Community Development Institute, which is a U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services grantee, had planned to move Beaver County’s first Head Start program to a location in remote, rural Raccoon Township, citing issues of toxic mold and electrical hazard as the reason. Aliquippa Fire Chief Dave Foringer said, “two reports from inspections actually proved that the mold spore readings were higher outside the building than inside. The electrical hazard and other issues that led to placards being placed on the building prohibiting its use, were nothing but housekeeping or cosmetic issues caused by the building’s tenants, not the owner. These concerns can be corrected in three days or less.”

Powell and Gill, who had organized several rallies to save the school, were concerned that the decision to move the center was made without input from the Head Start Policy Council which is customarily consulted before major decisions are made. The two were denied admission to an August 28 Policy Council meeting at CDI’s Rochester office. Ironically, only Powell and Gill were barred from the meeting, which led them, along with Mayor Walker to request a town hall meeting with National CDI Project Director, Nila Rinehart, who flew in from Denver for the meeting. Senator Bob Casey had expressed his concerns regarding the center’s moving to U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. This obviously had a role in prompting the town hall meeting.

Powell, Gill and Alam found out about the planned closing July 14, less than two months before the start of school. “I was never told about any problems in the Main Street location until then,” Alam said. “I am a licensed contractor and hardware store owner, so it would have been very easy to make any necessary corrections, if CDI had notified me in a timely manner.”

The three conducted a tour of the building during the August 21 rally, pointing out the areas in question, showing that any issues were purely cosmetic. Notably, there was no visible evidence or tell-tale smell of mold. Though there were minor wrinkles in classroom carpets and a non-conductive thermostat wire that needed covered, administrative offices on the lower floors were in pristine condition. Alam offered to make all necessary corrections at his own expense.

“I represent Aliquippa as a part of One Aliquippa, and feel that we have been left out of any of the decision making that took place regarding the closing of our Head Start,” Powell said. “They are throwing punches at us, but what they don’t understand is that we are fighting back.”

“They have gone completely around the Policy Council, which should always be involved in all important decisions,” Gill said. “We were singled out for exclusion from the meeting at CDI and don’t appreciate being disrespected like this.”

“There was no mention of mold or any other problems until Hopewell School District sold the Raccoon building to an Ellwood City company, Four Bees by the Sea,” said attorney John Havie. “A Raccoon Township Zoning Board hearing was held on August 23 to grant a special zoning exception to use the building, which had been vacant for years, as an educational facility. The area is also where Marcellus Shale drilling rights were under negotiation. Aliquippa would also lose money in existing contracts that support the Head Start program.”

Havie advised that the zoning exception was not granted and the sale fell through.

Mayor Walker was adamant, stating, “I won’t allow anything to go down that costs any residents of my city their jobs. This is wrong, and the day that they tell us it is so, and it isn’t are gone.”

At the Aug. 21 rally, concerned parent, Genell Gaston expounded on the move to Raccoon, “they (parents) can’t volunteer, they can’t get the experience, they can’t get there. Most parents have a hard time getting here to this site, but it’s easier, most people in the community can walk here, but you can’t walk to Raccoon. What happens if there’s an emergency, how’re you going to get your child.”

Charlene Johnson, another parent who would be adversely affected by the move stated, “most of these young people don’t have cars. It’s difficult enough to get around Aliquippa, now they’re expected to get all the way to Raccoon to get their children if something

happens. They’re (Head Start staff and administrators) not going to be responsible to bring these children to their parents, there’s an insurance issue if they transport the kids, and they don’t have a nurse on staff to take care of them if there is an emergency. Why are you taking these kids out of the community that they live in, out of the environment they know best, and put them into an environment that they know nothing of?”

“They know the teachers and staff here and are used to them and comfortable with them,” Gaston said.

A large group, approximately 120 parents, concerned citizens and public officials attended the Aug. 29 meeting at Aliquippa City Hall in an attempt to prevent the planned permanent moving of Aliquippa Head Start to remote Raccoon Township. Mayor Walker presided; Aliquippa Councilman Donald Walker and Chief Foringer, Beaver County Commissioners Joe Spanik and Tony Amadio attended; U.S. Congressman Mark Critz sent staff, and state senatorial candidate Kimberly P. Villella, who has been heavily involved in resolving the problem, sent her campaign manager, Jason Henry.

Rinehart told the citizens at the meeting that until all reports on the building’s safety were reviewed, children would temporarily be transported to the Rochester Head Start center for a morning and an afternoon session. There was great protest to this and many of the parents refused to allow their children to be bussed or taxied to Rochester. Mayor Walker then asked Chief Foringer to certify that the building was safe enough for use. Chief Foringer affirmed that it was safe of mold and all other issues and that all the minor issues that stood in the way of opening could be remedied in three days at the maximum. A final decision on the temporary move was not rendered by Courier press time.

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