Eyes in the storm
- Madras Pioneer - Opinion
>Migrant Head Start facility faces opposition
Kids like Daniel Martinez are oblivious to the ruckus their day-care has whipped up in recent months.
Three-year-olds like Daniel are too young to worry about such things. For him, Head Start is a place to get hot meals, free medical care and learn English between naps and playtime.
Daniel has no idea that a new Head Start facility proposed on Bean Foundation property for children like him is at the center of a controversy that has turned ugly.
On Nov. 7, the Jefferson County Planning Commission will hear a conditional land-use proposal from the Oregon Child Development Coalition to construct a 16,200 square-foot building on A Street between 16th and Kinkaid Road at an estimated cost of $1.6 million. It has drawn fierce criticism from a fuming group of neighbors and some area farmers.
The OCDC is funded through federal dollars and has operated a Migrant Head Start program on D Street next to Texaco for the past two years in a building it considers worn down and unfit to service the needs of the area's eligible children.
Those that want to stop the not-for-profit corporation's bid say this issue has as much to do with wasteful taxpayer spending and the unnecessary duplication of services as it does increasing traffic and elk hunting season.
Each morning, a toddler arrives at the Migrant Head Start building wearing the same diaper it left with the day before, OCDC staff members say.
This example alone, they say, underscores the importance of their services to the low-income migrant families of the county.
The local OCDC is just one of 13 migrant and seasonal Head Start centers in Oregon. Established in 1971, the private corporation was formed by a group of growers following the death of a 3-year-old child of a migrant farm worker. It was created to provide family-focused, comprehensive child development services to children as old as 6 and as young as infants.
The parents of these children are not the lawyers, mayors, city councilors, doctors or other prominent figures in the community. They are the temporary laborers who work in Jefferson County's agricultural fields -- the type of people whose voices are rarely heard even though they are vital to the industry's well being. Most don't even speak English.
These parents are also the recipients of invaluable services, their staff says, beyond the fact that don't have to take their children to the fields.
But the OCDC is under attack for a myriad of reasons. Its critics charge, among many other things, that it represents a bureaucratic engine of federal-dollar hustlers that exaggerate their needs and numbers.
One of four Head Start programs in Jefferson County, OCDC's branch is currently located at 108 S.W. 6th St. in a building it rents from the Children's Learning Center -- another Head Start program that vacated the facility two years ago for a location directly across the street from OCDC's proposed new building.
OCDC officials say 50 children and their families benefit from the services. Some families were turned away or put on the waiting list this year, they say, because state and local regulations prohibit them from serving more than 50 kids based on the size and dimensions of the building.
Diane Treadway, the private corporation's Jefferson County director, wants to move into the proposed $1.6 million building so they can serve 100 children in more appropriate facilities.
She says the D Street building suffers from an "ants and rat problem" as well as inadequate sink and kitchen facilities. Recently, she says, a touring official from the Head Start Bureau in Washington, D.C., said their facility "was the worst Head Start building he'd ever seen."
They have money for both the building and 100 kids. And Treadway dismisses the effort to derail their ground-breaking as nothing more than a "not in my backyard" gripe.
"They don't want us there and now they have decided to attack our program and our integrity," she says.
Critics of the proposed Head Start facility cite numerous reasons for their opposition. But one thing they don't forget to mention is that they believe the effort is based on good, but ultimately misguided intentions.
"I certainly think there's a need to help the migrant children -- I'm all for that," said Larry Easter, who owns and operates the East Cascade Living center for seniors across from the Bean Foundation property. "But to expand an already diminishing need -- that's where I say hold it. We're already spending enough money here. Everything you see here is government waste."
Neighbors of the 2.17-acre site aren't the only ones who have cast a critical eye on the proposal. In August, the Jefferson County commissioners sent a letter to Treadway, which stated: "As agriculture diminishes and fewer labor-intensive crops are being grown in Madras, we question the need for another child-care building, at the cost of $1.5 million, being placed in our community."
The county has since withdrawn its opposition to the new facility along with officials from the Children's Learning Center across the street.
Yet some questions still remain.
"The program itself has good merits behind it and so forth, but the big question is whether there is really a need for a building that size," said Duane Belvior, director of the state-funded Children's Learning Center. "Right now there's no longer a conflict. But the other issue is we don't know what they're going to use the facility for the rest of the year."
The Migrant Head Start program operates from May 1 to Oct. 31 each year based on when migrant field laborers arrive for the seasonal work. During the remaining calendar year, the building will not serve migrant children and others in the child-care business have worried that it could be leased out to competing private or state service providers, which could create a child-care turf war.
While some former critics have backed off, a vigilant citizens committee brought together by Easter has been determined to stop construction of the new Head Start.
They have collected their own data, written stacks of letters to elected officials and even done head counts of the children attending the current Head Start building. Based on their own research, they attack the OCDC on many fronts and their list of complaints are long:
-- They say the need for migrant labor is decreasing as agriculture declines.
-- They say that the OCDC's enrollment numbers this year prove there is not a growing need for more services or a building to host 100 children. Only 54 were enrolled this year, four of whom were put on the waiting list.
-- They accuse the OCDC of exaggerating the number of potential children who would be eligible for their services. Camile Harris, an area farmer, says she conducted her own survey of farmers and found the data was untrue. They also allege that the OCDC used 1998 statistics in their 2001 needs assessment.
-- They believe the facility would bring an undesired amount of traffic into a quiet neighborhood.
-- They say any new Migrant Head Start facility should be located closer to the Hispanic neighborhoods where the children and their families reside.
-- Taxpayer money being poured into an expensive new facility would be better spent renovating and improving the existing building, they say.
-- And they say the administrators of this private nonprofit corporation are paid ridiculously high salaries while their staff members collect unemployment during the off-season. This is simply taking advantage of the system and ripping off taxpayers, they say.
"Why would they waste $1.8 million on a building they don't need," says Easter. "Is it arrogance? Is it self esteem? Is it power out of control? We have proof that there is no need."
While Treadway admits that her employees begin collecting employment every year after they're terminated, she says "what they do is their business."
"My intent has only been around meeting the needs of children and families and advocating for them," Treadway said. "I'm not trying to build an empire."
And in regards to accusations of inaccurate data, OCDC officials say they collect their information from a diverse set of sources, including the Oregon Employment Department and other agencies.
"We could talk until we were blue in the face about differences in data," says Rod Walker, the OCDC facilities manager based out of Wilsonville. "But what we were given in good faith fulfills the federal government's criteria."
The next step
Next Wednesday, the Madras Planning Commission will hear the $1.6 million proposal in a public meeting at 7 p.m. at the city hall.
Some in the opposition camp accuse the OCDC of purposely scheduling the meeting during the start of elk hunting season, knowing many of their critics will not be able to attend.
Treadway called that accusation "pure silliness."
"You know, I'm worried about the kids, where they're going to go after we close, how they're going to get fed, if they're going to be warm this winter and these people are worried about hunting season," she said.
Planning Commission Chairperson Pat Taylor, who resides next to the proposed Head Start building, will abstain from the voting because she belongs to the group in opposition. Two seats on the planning commission are already vacant, so that will leave the decision in the hands of four people -- the minimum needed to hold quorum.
Taylor, like others, says she initially opposed the Migrant Head Start "because it's in my backyard" but later learned that there were many things wrong with the corporation she claims is "working the system" and "can't be trusted."
"I'm concerned with what they're going to be doing there," she said. "And what about the other six months that they're not open. Who's going to be hanging around then."
Although OCDC officials claim they have responded to opponents of their proposal and answered each and every questions from their critics at two recent public forums organized to clear up what they consider misconceptions, Treadway said they are not necessarily up front about why they so strongly oppose the Migrant Head Start.
"I'm about 90 percent sure it's racially motivated," she contends. "Some people think the presence of brown-skinned children will damage their property value."