CHEYENNE – Community Action of Laramie County will no longer facilitate the federal early education program for children from low-income families known as Head Start.

That’s because the nonprofit group that has overseen Laramie County’s Head Start initiatives since 1969, recently learned that it did not receive a renewal of the federal grant money it relies on to pay teachers and support staff.

“We have been working on a contingency plan – should we not get the grant – for the last five months because you never know about competitive grants,” said Tim Ernst, interim executive director of Community Action. The contingency plan involved laying off all of the Head Start staff, but Ernst said leadership was under a gag order and could not communicate that to employees.

Earlier this week, Ernst said the organization got notice that it could put that plan in action. It told a total of 45 Head Start employees and other administrative staff that they no longer have jobs after June 30, when the contract with the regional Head Start office expires.

“There was anger. There was crying. It was not easy,” Ernst said of the staff’s reaction to the news.

As of Friday morning, Ernst said the organization was still in the process of notifying the parents of the approximately 130 children enrolled in the Head Start program that they’d no longer be receiving services through Community Action, but rather another unspecified local organization.

The federal grant, which distributes around $3 million per year in Head Start money to Community Action, reopens every five years for a competitive application process. Even though the Office of Head Start has awarded Community Action the grant for decades, an unknown competitor beat them out this year.

“We’re not sure why our application wasn’t selected,” said Ernst, who expects the regional and federal head start offices to identify the new holder of the county's Head Start grant sometime in the next couple of weeks. The scored grant application, which could give the organization some insight into why the selection committee did not renew them as holders of the Head Start grant, is still sealed from public view, but will be made available at a later date.

“Head Start is not going away in Laramie County,” said Patrick Brady, chair of Community Action’s board of directors. “I know what we’ve done as an organization. I know what we continue to do as an organization.”

And apparently the new grantee has said they can do it better – and I have no reason to doubt that.”

Brady added that Community Action is “excited to work with the new grantee” to smoothly transition the county’s Head Start services, which, in addition to education, can include nutrition and health services to low-income families with young children.

Right now, the organization is working with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services to provide the now laid-off employees information about job openings and unemployment benefits.

“Since we don’t know who the new provider is yet, we can’t even reach out to anyone here to start the transition,” Ernst said. “What we’re hoping is that whoever the new provider is will look at the current staff and rehire them.”

One now-laid-off Head Start employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, said they’re skeptical that the new provider will rehire the employees Community Action had to let go.

“A recommendation. A hoping of ‘please take our original staff’ does not hold water,” said the employee, who added that they were hired well after Community Action allegedly put together the contingency plan that required laying off all Head Start employees if the grant didn’t get renewed.

“I did a lot of investigating before I took this job. I learned that Head Start’s been around forever. That the grant always gets renewed. I thought it would be super safe,” they said. “I guess I was wrong.”

Kathryn Palmer is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached at kpalmer@wyoming or 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter at @kathrynbpalmer.

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