Casey enters Aliquippa Head Start move fight

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by Joby Brown

U.S. Sen. Robert P. Casey expressed his concerns about the moving of the Aliquippa Head Start Program to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services, in a letter dated Aug. 29.

Senator Casey emphasized the concerns of citizens, local, county and state officials, about the aborted decision to move the Aliquippa Head Start. He said he was bothered by the lack of public input in the decision making process. In his letter, he asked the secretary and her department, “to take immediate steps to communicate with the families and community stakeholders and address their concerns.

“Since the decision to relocate the Aliquippa Head Start Program was made, I have heard from families and local officials who are concerned that the new location for the Head Start Program, which is some distance from the old location, may create additional hardships for the children and families served by this program, he said. “I understand that the decision to move the Head Start Program was based on concerns about the safety of the Aliquippa School District building. The safety of the children is vital and should be the top priority. I also understand that this decision was made without first communicating with parents or local officials, which is inconsistent with Head Start’s emphasis on the involvement of families and the local community.” Senator Casey was not aware of the ’temporary’ move to Rochester when he wrote the letter.

Ken Wolfe, deputy director of HHS, Administration for Children & Families, didn’t elaborate on the previously aborted plan to move the center to Raccoon, but did say, “the elementary school in Raccoon was a different approach that was being discussed at the time, but right now, the current plan is to have the children at the Rochester Head Start location, and then have the building in Aliquippa cleaned up. Then the children would be moved back to Aliquippa.” Wolfe said. “The primary issue is the children’s safety, and that the move to Rochester is purely temporarily.”

He mentioned that transportation would be provided for children and volunteers, but didn’t elaborate on any potential safety or liability concerns. Wolfe could not state how long the center will be housed in Rochester or whether a time line for the duration of the temporary move has yet been established. What happens if the Rochester building is actually inspected, and unsafe conditions are discovered?

Despite promises to work together with the community by Community Development Institute National Project Director Nila Rinehart, the Aliquippa Head Start program is being moved to a location in Rochester, Pa., eight miles away. Though Rinehart, had constantly emphasized that the move to Rochester is temporary, the overwhelming majority of Aliquippa parents and citizens who attended the Aug. 29 town hall meeting believe that the move is permanent.

Wolfe stated that Rescue Squad Restoration did an air-water-mold test on Aug. 17. He also stated that U.S. Micro Solutions of Greensburg did testing for lead based paint, but not until Aug. 30, less than two weeks before the September 10 start of school for Head Start. Wolfe stated that when asked why air testing was done on Aug. 17 and paint on Aug. 30, he stated, “I don’t know the inspection business well enough to know how they specialize, but we do call on experts who do specialize to tell us about all the different levels.” What is extremely interesting about this is that John Havie, attorney for Tony Alam, owner of the Aliquippa Head Start building, located at 1200 Main Street, stated at the August 29 meeting, that the issue of mold originated on July 14. The building had been placarded prior to the meeting, alarming parents whose children were in the Head Start program.

When asked if the Rochester location had also been inspected prior to the decision by CDI to move the children, Wolfe stated, “I can look into that and see what CDI did as far as the Rochester building; I will find that out.

“We did see that there were things, visibly that needed cleaning up at the (Aliquippa) building, definitely the reason why we have the children temporarily moved, but we wanted to have all these inspection reports open and transparent.”

In regards to the reports that Fire Chief Dave Foringer talked about at the town hall meeting, and his certification that the 1200 Main St. location was safe, Wolfe stated,

“We do not work with any local officials, which is why we go to outside inspectors to obtain our reports. CDI is a temporary grantee that we use in all parts of the country. We trust their recommendations.”

Wolfe feels this way even though concerned citizens of Aliquippa, including Mayor Dwan Walker and Councilman Donald Walker, are not satisfied with CDI. George Powell and Sandra Gill of One Aliquippa, a group concerned with the interests of the city’s residents, both stated, “once they succeed in moving our children out of Aliquippa, we will never get them back. This means the end for the Aliquippa Head Start. First they tried to move our kids way out to Raccoon Township, and now it’s Rochester. This was their plan B all along.”

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