After years of providing discounted diesel fuel and repairs for Head Start buses, Howard County officials have told the nonprofit the practice must end, raising fears that increased costs will hamper educational programs for 264 children from low-income households.
The announcement came in a letter from a top county official that gave Head Start a one-week notice. The notice angered parents of Head Start children and the chairman of the county's Community Action Council board, which administers the $1.8 million-a-year program.
"I'm very upset about the whole thing," said Catherine Hall, a parent leader whose daughter, Alexis Marbury, 5, is completing her second year in Head Start this spring.
"If we can't find a provider who can provide us with cheaper gas, they're going to take it out of our budget - cut activities for the kids," said Hall, who is parent committee chairwoman. "That means paints and crayons."
Head Start has been paying $3.16 a gallon for the county's diesel fuel for the program's four school buses, which carry 30 to 42 children each. The retail price for diesel in the Mid-Atlantic area was $4.26 a gallon as of Friday, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.
The county government has provided support to Head Start in the past, building a school for the program next to Cradlerock School in east Columbia. Two other Head Start sites are in two former county school buildings in Ellicott City and west Columbia.
Michael McPherson, Community Action Council board chairman, said he was upset by the abrupt nature of the notice from the county and has appealed to Maryland's congressional delegation for help. Head Start operates with federal funds, though a separate seven-week summer program for 144 children is paid for with a combination of state and private contributions.
"We've had this partnership with the county ever since the beginning of time," McPherson said. "This could end up costing us $30,000."
On April 8, Head Start received a letter from Lonnie Robbins, the county's chief administrative officer, that said support for the buses would end April 15. That was extended until May 2, and McPherson said he's hoping it can be extended again until May 22, the end of the program's academic year.
"This is something that could have been avoided if the county had sat down and let us know this was an issue," said McPherson, who is also chairman of the county's Democratic Party Central Committee. "It wasn't handled in a forthright manner."
But Robbins disagreed with McPherson's characterization of how the notification was handled, saying Head Start staffers were told of the coming change before the mailing.
"We reached out to CAC verbally before we sent the letter," he said.
Robbins said the county has no choice but to discontinue the support. He mentioned a 1998 Internal Revenue Service ruling that the county recently discovered, which prohibits the resale of gasoline on which no federal taxes are paid. In addition, the county's repairs to the vehicles could expose the government to liability.
McPherson countered that the purchase of government gas is not illegal, but the subject of an IRS rule that could be changed. And Head Start has liability insurance that would cover the county's exposure to any lawsuits, he said.
"They have no exposure," he said.
Robbins said the county is attempting to help with the transition.
"We're actually in conversation with the CAC and we're trying to work through this," he said.
Robbins concluded that the difference in gas prices shouldn't cost Head Start more than an additional $4,000 a year. The county plans to give the quasi-governmental agency about $1,000 to help ease the transition.
James B. Smith, executive director of the CAC, said Head Start has a $70,000 annual budget for fuel and repairs for the bus fleet.
The nonprofit is trying to raise funds to buy a fifth bus, but McPherson said CAC will now have to explore other options, too. Possibilities include contracting bus service with a private firm and seeking a deal with a local bus company for fuel, repairs and storage.