Hill Country Community Action, a San Saba-based social services provider, was recently informed that it may have to compete for its federal Head Start grant.

Since 1966, Hill Country has been the Head Start provider for a 12-county, 13,000-square-mile area that includes Bell, Coryell, Hamilton, Lampasas, Milam and San Saba counties.

Head Start is a federally funded program that provides comprehensive early education for children and a range of support services to low-income families, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees Head Start.

Family services can include health, nutrition and social services, along with educational and cognitive development services for children.

Hill Country Community Action has a $10 million annual operating budget, $8 million of which comes from federal grants. The remaining $2 million comes from nonfederal and in-kind contributions, according to a profile of the organization put together by Hill Country’s staff as background for federal regulators.

More than 1,000 students are enrolled in Hill Country’s annual Head Start classes and the agency employs 146 people.

In 2007, Congress passed the Head Start designation renewal process, which was first implemented by the White House in 2012. The process is in place to make sure the agencies that administer the Head Start program have adequate oversight in their administration of federal funds.

Unlike other federal programs that place intermediaries such as colleges and governmental organizations between the agency issuing the funds and the organization receiving them, Head Start is still a direct grant.

“It’s one of the last federal grants that goes straight to the grantee,” said Janelle Frazier, executive director of Central Texas 4 C, the Hill Country Community Action subcontractor that provides Head Start services in Temple, Belton, Killeen and Copperas Cove.

The decision to require Hill Country to compete for a Head Start grant came about because of a problem that occurred last fall, said Hill Country’s Executive Director Tama Shaw.

“We had one incident where a faulty alarm allowed a child to get outside of the building,” Shaw said. “He was swiftly returned and the door alarm was replaced.”

Hill Country staff reported the incident to Health and Human Services staff, Shaw said. They didn’t hear anything about it for a few months.

In February, Health and Human Services notified 103 agencies across the country that they will need to compete for continued Head Start funding.

Under regulations announced in 2011, grantees that do not meet quality thresholds must compete with other potential early childhood education providers to receive future Head Start funds, the notification said.

A total of 12 service providers in Texas were designated for competition because they were identified as having fiscal or managerial issues, or regulators discovered deficiencies in their on-site monitoring.

Frazier said she doesn’t believe the Department of Health and Human Services will make an adverse decision because the quality of services offered by Hill Country and Central Texas 4 C is so high.

Despite the confidence in their abilities, Hill Country staff isn’t waiting for a decision from Health and Human Services.

“We are trying to get off the list for open competition before the request for proposal is put out,” Shaw said. The request for proposal is an invitation to other entities to bid for the Head Start grant.

Concerns about the stability of Hill Country’s Head Start grant were raised by John Fisher, Bell County Precinct 4 commissioner, who sits on Hill Country’s board.

Fisher brought the issue to Monday’s meeting of the Bell County Commissioners’ Court where the commissioners decided to appeal to Congress.

“County Judge Jon Burrows and I are interested in sitting down with U.S. Rep. John Carter to discuss this,” Fisher said.

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