GARLAND — Town officials have pledged to do whatever it takes to keep Head Start services in Garland for some 60 children and their parents in the wake of a Tuesday facility walk-through and meeting with Telamon Corporation, the program grantee that maintains necessary renovations at the current facility would be costly and time-consuming, and cannot be made by September.
The walk-through Tuesday came on the heels of a meeting with Telamon officials last Thursday, during which they shared concerns of the condition of the building and the measures needed to get licensed so Head Start children could be served there — they said children would have to be bused to Roseboro. The Garland Board of Commissioners and parents, many who were hearing the news for the first time, chided Telamon for a lack of communication.
A tour of the facility was proposed so everyone could see building issues firsthand.
“We need to know what the concerns are that would necessitate closing this facility on a spur-of-the-moment decision,” Garland Mayor Winifred Murphy said Tuesday, standing with about 40 or 50 others inside the Head Start facility. “We need to know what we need to do to get this center running for our children in a timely manner.”
Bill Buckner, property coordinator for Telamon, noted concerns about possible asbestos and lead paint, as well as exposed pipes, damaged flooring and safety hazards posed by holes in the wall, playground equipment and elevated sidewalks he deemed “trip hazards.” There need to be rails and gates around the play area.
“This needs work, a lot of work,” said Buckner. “This is about the safety of the kids. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not sure how this has passed in days gone by. I can’t answer that, and I don’t want to address that. We have concerns about that.”
Following the tour, the crowd met at Garland Town Hall to discuss the situation. Richard Joanis, executive director for Telamon, made the company’s stance clear.
“We have not decided that we won’t open the doors in Garland, but that won’t happen in September,” Joanis asserted. “There are myriad reasons why that is the case. Just the top three would have to do with inspections that need to be done, licensing that has to be passed on, and taking what is in the inspections and making the repairs and improvements necessary to get licensing. All those things have to be done before Telamon can open any building to children.”
Murphy noted that Garland Board of Commissioners had been told by Telamon director Arvelis Byrd last week that the children would be served, but at the Charles E. Perry site in Roseboro.
“So in our minds, that Garland center will not open as you said,” the mayor said. “That decision was made to bus the children to another facility without notifying the community. Even though you thought we did not own the building, regardless of who owns the facility, the community is here, the community is engaged. Our concern is to have a quality center and quality services for our parents who sometimes don’t have transportation.”
‘Dead in the water’
Commissioner Ralph Smith asked whether there were plans to open, maybe not in September, but at a later date. Joanis said once Telamon knows what needs to be done to the building, and once they know where the money and materials will come from, and are able to start work if feasible, then “at some point” the center would open.
“I can’t guarantee that would happen within a year,” said Joanis. “Sometimes it has taken much longer than that to get buildings refurbished. We know that, from A to Z, a building built in 1954 can’t past muster against regulations and requirements in 2012. Starting with the sanitation folks, there are probably a half-dozen to a dozen serious items that have to be addressed.”
Commissioner Matthew Register asked about the money issue. He said commissioners were told there was $55,000 that was budgeted for repairs in Garland, and those repairs would cost around $60,000.
Joanis provided a different figure Tuesday, saying the estimate for repairs was actually around $205,000. Buckner said he couldn’t recall the exact figure, but said it was “substantial,” an amount that encompassed HVAC, windows, plumbing and other issues, not even including measures needed to make the building ADA (American Disabilities Act)-compliant.
“It won’t be an inexpensive project by any means,” said Joanis. “I saw some things today that really caused me some questions in my mind. We know that unless we are legally able to operate the program for the children, that we are dead in the water — and that’s where we are right now in terms of the facility we just left.”
Joanis said no promises were made to be in Garland, but was included in a sort of wish list of centers where Telamon wanted to have children served. The only promise was to serve 417 total children, 345 Head Start and 72 Early Head Start children.
“My concern is the grant was written, money was requested for the Garland site with the initial walk-through (in March), and it should’ve been apparent then that is an old building and it will cost a lot of money to repair,” said Murphy. “But yet, in the grant application, the Garland center is scheduled to open.”
The mayor said the town in recent days has been presented with conflicting stories. On one hand, the town has been told that money was requested to make renovations up to Telamon’s standards but that the request was not fully funded. On the other hand, the town was told by Telamon in a special meeting last week that previous grantee Sampson County was supposed to make repairs prior to relinquishing the grant on June 30, but did not do so.
Byrd backpedalled from the comments Tuesday, but Murphy held her to them.
“Excuse me, we have this on tape and it was in the paper, we all heard it,” the mayor said. “You said Sampson County was supposed to get these things done before June 30.”
Joanis said, regardless of what was said and what plans might have been, the important thing was to move forward.
“It’s really isn’t important whether Sampson County planned to do some things or not, because their time with the grant is gone. It is a moot point about whether they could have or should have or would have completed any repairs,” Joanis said. “What’s important is that those things and a number of others need to be done to upgrade the facility so we can get a license to have kids there. It is now on us.”
Garland is not the only location in Telamon’s 47-year history where a program was planned for operation but was unable to open because of the condition of facilities, Joanis noted. “Yeah, but Garland’s the only one we’re worried about,” Smith interjected.
‘You’ve told us nothing’
Other questions were asked by those in attendance, including the cost of busing children compared to the necessary renovations to serve the 61 children at the Garland site. Telamon said those numbers had not been crunched. Buckner said inspections would have to be scheduled and conducted before any real cost of renovations is known, and timetable for completion of the work given.
“So you come down here and you can’t give us an answer of anything,” Smith said. “I’m surprised you have nothing to gather at all. I would think that you would come to this table telling us something, and you’ve told us nothing.”
“Well the inspections haven’t been done yet,” Buckner replied.
“The only thing you really know is there’s not going to be any kids there come September,” Smith said. “That’s the only thing you can guarantee us, isn’t it? That’s the only thing you really have got to bring to the table today. We don’t need to know ‘if,’ we need to know what you intend to do. Are you going to inspect it? Say what you’re going to do. To be sure you have an idea if you’re going to move forward or not.”
Joanis said the building would be assessed to see what needs to be done to bring it up to standard, however he noted that Buckner is “pretty busy” working statewide on issues at other facilities. Those inspections could produce a “nightmare” for the Garland site.
“We could see reports that would double or triple the amount of money it would take to get this building up to par. We’re not miracle workers, we’re social workers. We wrote a grant to take over a Head Start program in Sampson County and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to serve those kids and those parents. If it means that we can’t get into a facility with license for six months to a year, that’s what it’s going to mean. I can’t be more direct about that.”
Former Head Start director Lacy Bell Jr. pointed out some of the renovations done over the years and denied there was a roach infestation, saying the building was regularly sprayed for pests. Assistant county manager Susan Holder said a report of pests in 2010 — a matter that was resolved — was the only such report.
“We stretched the Head Start dollar as far as we could to provide quality service here in Garland. We don’t want you to think that we tried to short-change it,” said Bell. “We’ve spent money on that building, quite a bit, to try and do the best we can to serve this community. I want you to know we did the best we could based on the funding we were afforded. I certainly did not want to see Head Start leave from Garland. Hopefully we can get this center back up and running. Of course, it is going to take some dollars.”
Joanis said Telamon will absolutely not run a center where kids are in danger.
“I understand that,” Smith replied, “but I also understand that you have not come up with a solid solution yet.”
“You are absolutely right,” Joanis said.
‘We need our children here’
Murphy said the town was also looking at the possibility of establishing a local church as a temporary site to serve children while renovations were made at the Head Start building. Register implored Telamon to give the town board and residents the option of attempting to find alternatives before the busing decision was made.
“It feels like right now, when you walk out of this door, it’s going to be ‘see you later Garland.’ That’s how it feels,” said Register. “Everybody in this room feels this way. On Thursday night, when we had this meeting, we left out of here (thinking) if we could figure out how to come up with $60,000 we could get our place back up and running. Now you’re telling us it’s $205,000. Next time you come down here, it’s going to be a quarter of a million dollars.”
Joanis said it very well could be that much.
“If you sense that we have abandoned the kids and parents of Garland, North Carolina,” Joanis said, “you are simply mistaken.”
Murphy asked that any letters to parents notifying them of the busing decision be delayed so she and Byrd could discuss and explore alternatives before the plan was set in stone. The mayor requested copies of Telamon’s grant, its budget and expenditures made in Sampson, as well as the community assessment that was done. A “punch list” of needed repairs with accompanying timeline was also requested.
“We need our children here,” said Murphy. “Please do not ignore us, please don’t exclude us from this process. When we get into conflict, no one wins. We do look forward to working very closely with (Telamon) to resolve this in a peaceful way. We do want the services to continue for all children, we just would like for them to be served here. We are sitting here ready to do whatever we need to do to get this center open.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.