Agency to assume Head Start operations

WESTFIELD – Community Action!, a Greenfield-based social service agency, will assume administration of the Westfield Head Start program in January.
The agency, which currently services populations in Franklin and Hampshire counties, will expand into Hampden Country, when it takes over the Head Start program currently serving Westfield, West Springfield, Agawam and Southwick.
Mayor Daniel M. Knapik said this morning that transferring administration to Community Action! is in the best interest of both the city and the Head Start program.
The Westfield School Committee has administered the program, which was initially based solely in the city, since 1985. Last year the committee voted to “discharge” the federal and state grants funding the program.
Westfield was one of only two municipally administered Head Start programs in the state, the other being Worcester.
“Community Action! has a long history of running Head Start programs,” Knapik said. “It’s what they specialize in.”
“There have been a lot of changes since the School Committee accepted the grant in 1985,” Knapik said. “The (Head Start) program is much more complex today and has grown in terms of enrollment. Westfield is the second largest, with the largest enrollment in West Springfield.”
“Given that metric, does it make sense for the city to run a regional program,” Knapik said. “It does make sense for a regional agency.”
One of the primary issues that led the School Committee to seek an alternate administrator for the Head Start program was the financial liability to the city.
“If the program ran a deficit, the city of Westfield taxpayers would be on the hook,” Knapik said.
Community Action! is led by Executive Director Clare Higgins, and is governed by a twenty-four member Board of Directors. One-third (8) of the members of the Board live with lower incomes and are elected by residents living with lower incomes in Franklin and Hampshire Counties. These seats give people with lower incomes a direct voice in shaping Community Action!’s policies and programs. The other sixteen Board members represent public officials and organizations from the private sector. (Direct quote from the Community Action website).
Higgins, 56, resigned in September as the mayor of Northampton to take over as head of the Community Action! agency.
Knapik said the transfer of authority will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 24, although there has already been an organizational meeting between Community Action! and the current staff of the Head Start program.
“There are a lot of issues that remain to be worked out,” Knapik said. That list of issues include the pay scale, health benefits and retirement.
The city and Community Action! have been discussing a timeline on that transfer process since late October.
“We wanted to get past the holidays and school vacations,” Knapik said.
“We have an agreement to allow them to continue to use the city-owned Head Start building (on Southampton Road) and we will continue to pay for utilities,” Knapik said. “So all in all, it’s a pretty fair deal to them.”

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