A “swarm of flying termites” at Luther’s Armstrong Head Start led to the closure of the pre-school for a week in April, and a discovery that the federally-funded program hasn’t paid any rent to the owner of the building for “as long as anyone can remember.” Who is the owner? The Town of Luther.
No one quite remembers how the Town came to the own the building or why there was never a lease agreement. Officials at the Community Action Agency that collects $12.6 million from the U.S. government to manage about 35 head-start programs in Oklahoma and Canadian Counties told The Luther Register that they’d been in the building for forty years, so why the interest now?
The Armstrong building is the only surviving structure of the historic Booker T Washington High School that was nationally recognized for the first half of the 20th century as a premier black high school. The Head Start building, that was once the shop building at Washington High School, faces the park Park up on the hill just to the south and west of Main Street.
“All of us feel keyed in on the historical significance; it’s phenomenal. It is just a beautiful building,” said Luther Mayor Jenni White. “Honestly, we are a brand new board … and the best records have not been kept. It has taken some time to chase this down.”
The Luther Town Board met on May 2, 2018, to discuss the issue in executive session and emerged directing Town Attorney Matthew Winton to begin a dialogue with Community Action Agency to work toward a lease agreement.
Meanwhile, CAA has been addressing the termites. CAA Executive Director Jim Sconzo told his executive committee on April 24, 2018, “We had to temporarily close down the Armstrong Head Start Center in Luther, OK due to a large amount of swarming termites. A professional exterminator has been contracted to eliminate this problem,” according to minutes from the meeting.
That professional exterminator had a 10 am appointment on April 28 to treat the exterior and interior of the facility. However, The Luther Register has learned that no one from Armstrong or CAA showed up to let the exterminator inside that Saturday morning. The exterminator proceeded to set 20 termite bait stations around the exterior and left, unable to complete the work order.
Luther Armstrong Head Start resumed on Monday, April 30.
The Community Action Agency reports it spends $159,842 in rent and $266,800 on building maintenance for its budget period from April 1, 2017 – March 31, 2018. Requests to CAA by The Luther Register for lease, rental agreements or an explanation of how leases are arranged with other Head Starts were not answered. In addition, there is no information about how Armstrong’s portion of federal funding is spent in Luther. “The Agency does not do individual audits of Head Start centers,” said Carolyn Shaw, CAA Head Start Director, responding to Freedom of Information requests from The Luther Register. She also said, “the Agency does not prepare individual budgets per center.”
According to Luther Town Manager Scherrie Pidcock, Armstrong Head Start pays for town services, like trash service and water, but apparently has its own sewer system. However, the Luther Public Works Authority has taken care of the mowing and trimming of the property that is adjacent to the park. “LPWA does mow the Head Start. I’ve asked why but it’s just something we’ve always done and none of us know why, nor have I ever found any documentation as to why,” said Pidcock.
Head Start is a program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services begun more than 50 years ago to provide early childhood education to three-to-five-year-old children in low-income families. Head Start also accepts foster children in the program and families who receive other federal benefits. As of December 2017, Shaw said there were 15 students enrolled at Luther Armstrong Head Start.
Cathleen Sandoval’s daughter is one of the students. She said they have loved the program and adore the teachers, but the abrupt closing of Head Start for the termite problem caused her to miss work at a job she needs.
She also recalled school being abruptly closed for a teacher training with just a one-day notice causing her to scramble to find alternate child care, “it shouldn’t work that way, that’s how you lose jobs,” said Sandoval.
The Luther Register confirmed with another family about some instances of unexpected closures. That family dropped the program in the 2016-2917 school year because of it. The foster mother to whom we are granting privacy said issues such as a water heater problem, ants or other reasons would close school with little warning. She said it became too stressful to plan things such as doctor’s appointments in the city with her other foster children not knowing if Head Start would be open from day to day or whether she would have to race back to Armstrong to pick them up if the school would close mid-day.
Back to the lease agreement with the owners of the historic building; the parties are working on it.
“We need an agreement. That’s what we’re working toward and we’ll get them a key,” Sconzo told The Luther Register after his May 3 board meeting at CAA Headquarters in Oklahoma City. The board, eating a lasagna meal with salad and dessert, while they worked through their agenda, did not mention the issue in Luther as part of its many prepared reports about all of the programs of the agency including weatherization, tax preparation and housing, in addition to Head Start.
White and Vice Mayor Jason Roach were given a tour of Armstrong Head Start on May 4, 2018, by a CAA representative. White said they observed where the termite repair work had been done, but noted they did not see it prior to it being fixed. She said they did not get to see a storage area and another area of the building because there was no key available. The local director of the program was not present.
“But none of us are about kicking out Head Start! No one wants to do that. The program has been good for the Town and Head Start,” said White. “We just need to get them on a lease to force accountability.”