Dozens of low-income city families paid in the past three years to send their children to state-funded summer camps that should have been free, according to an audit.
The report by Baltimore Inspector General David McClintock faulted the St. Paul Community Head Start program in Gardenville for collecting nearly $27,000 and the city's Head Start administrative office for failing to monitor the program. The city has terminated its contract with the Northeast Baltimore church group and is considering offering refunds to the families, city officials said.
The state is conducting its own internal investigation of the matter as well, officials said.
The Rev. Gregory Perkins, longtime pastor at St. Paul Community Baptist Church and chair of the affiliated Head Start program, expressed disappointment, saying the report made St. Paul a scapegoat for the city's "inept and incompetent" maintenance of the program.
"It's really disingenuous to come back now and say that we violated all of this stuff," Perkins said. "If we did, Baltimore City is just as guilty, because I can assure you, nothing we did [was] outside of their knowledge."
According to Perkins, the church group's idea to charge parents to help sustain the camps came directly from program monitors at the city's Head Start administrative office.
"Not only did they suggest it, but they approved our request to do it. We wouldn't have just done something like that unless we knew we were within the boundaries," Perkins said.
Shannon Burroughs-Campbell, chief operating officer for the city's Head Start office, said she became aware of the disallowed summer camp fees only last summer, when multiple Head Start program operators admitted to charging fees for camps. (Other service providers were not struck from the program, Burroughs-Campbell said, because the scope of their problems was more limited.)
About the same time, St. Paul's summer camps were audited for the first time, and other problems aside from the fees were discovered.
McClintock's subsequent investigation came at the request of the Mayor's Office of Human Services, which took over the city's Head Start program from the Department of Housing and Community Development at the start of this year.
Aside from the inappropriate fees, the report also found the program maintained staffing levels for 160 campers over the three years in question — the number the program had state funding for — while only enrolling 85 campers. In doing so, the program spent more than $14,000 in grant funding in a way that was not in compliance with the grant provisions, the report found.
Perkins said the city also knew about the program's staffing level and never raised it as an issue.
The city's Head Start office has since brought all its operators in line with grant guidelines, Burroughs-Campbell said.
"Everything has been completely corrected, and we were given a clean slate of health with the feds in December," she said.
Human Services Director Olivia Farrow said her office was in talks with grant monitors at the Maryland Department of Education about how to make amends for the errors, including possible refunds.
"We'll be sitting down with the state over the next few weeks to identify next steps," Farrow said.
Farrow also said the Head Start program was transferred out of Housing and Community Development and into Human Services "to create a better synergy with the other human services programs," not because of monitoring problems.
The St. Paul program, formerly known as Ashland Head Start, was first transferred to the control of St. Paul after its former director, Audrey Marie James, was indicted in 2004 on charges that she stole more than $335,000 from the organization over four years. (She pleaded guilty to a theft charge in the case in 2005.)
Given that history, Perkins said the St. Paul board was determined to operate the program in a way that kept "everything above board and honest," and the inspector general's report belies their efforts to do so.
The church group had never run a program like Head Start before, Perkins said, but wanted the area's youngest kids to still have access to the services after the Ashland program fell apart.
"We thought if we got to them early enough, we could acclimate them to excellence," he said.
But the state funding for the summer camps was never enough to cover expenses, he said.
"We literally always had to rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak," he said.