Asheville Watchdog: Housing Authority’s Request for Childcare Bids Leaves Parents Worried About Future of Head Start Program

Written by Victoria A. Ifatusin, Asheville Watchdog.

The provider of a Head Start program that has served hundreds of preschool children in Asheville’s public housing for more than 30 years has been notified that its lease will be terminated next month and it must bid for a new contract to continue providing child care.

Uncertainty about the program has parents worried about potential new costs, the quality of future child care, and whether they’ll even have a place to send their children.


This is the second community resource that is endangered under new management of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville. The Southside community garden that has provided fresh produce for residents of a historically Black neighborhood could be dismantled and replaced with a playground.

On May 6, parents received a letter from Community Action Opportunities, the current provider of the Head Start program, that said HACA is “terminating our leases at the Pisgah View, Hillcrest and Lonnie D. Burton centers.”

“We have to vacate the premises by June 17, 2024,” wrote Brian Repass, CAO’s Children, Family & Community Partnerships Department director, informing parents that HACA had issued Request for Proposals “for a Childcare Operator to utilize the space to provide childcare services to the community.”

“If Community Action Opportunities Head Start is not chosen to be the childcare provider, Head Start services would not be available at this location,” Repass wrote, adding that the RFP requires offering extended day services. The program currently offers services from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Parents and members of the community voiced their concerns about the potential change at HACA’s monthly board meeting last Wednesday.

They asked why they were informed late in the process, and wondered whether their children would still receive services if Head Start is removed.

Parents and advocates described how Head Start has helped their families.

Tiara Edwards said she was able to receive her bachelor’s degree while her son attended Head Start at the Lonnie D. Burton center.

“This location has actually helped change my life,” she said to the HACA board.

HACA President Monique Pierre, who has been in her role since April 2023, said at the meeting that she met with CAO officials in August of that year and informed them that they would have to enter a procurement process in 2024 to adhere to federal guidelines. She said CAO had entered into a lease with all three HACA properties between October and December of 2009, but none had been procured for 15 years as previous HACA administrations were required to do so.

“We discussed the lease, we discussed the centers, and their service to our children,” she said in the meeting.

She later sent a notice to CAO in February 2024 saying it had to vacate all premises.

In an interview with The Watchdog after the meeting, Pierre said HACA’s facilities could be better used. “Change is good if you can reach more children in comparison to fewer,” she said.

She criticized CAO for waiting to let parents know about the change, saying the delay caused HACA “negative backlash.”

In the meeting she also said that CAO had not been paying the dollar-per-year token fee for the facilities.

When asked why HACA hasn’t communicated with residents about the procurement process, she said it is not her responsibility to notify CAO’s clients about what CAO is doing.

Pierre said at the meeting that she had visited Hillcrest and Lonnie D. Burton to see their operations and had noted classrooms were underused and empty. She said CAO said it was going to hire more teachers, but was struggling to bring on “teachers that could address the needs of the children.”

She acknowledged in the interview that Head Start programs have proven results and said she agrees that “it’s critical that children get early intervention.” But the current program, she said, doesn’t allow for parents to go to work, because they have to pick up their children by 2:30 p.m. – the middle of the work day for many.

Pierre said she wants to “provide equal opportunities” to potential child care operators and that the RFP requires the next operator to provide affordable services.

Terri Anello, HACA’s procurement and contracts manager, said the agency is federally required to reprocure contracts every five years. When asked whether the procurement process could mean there would be a gap in child care, Anello said, “That’s not something we can answer,” adding CAO could be chosen to continue as the Head Start provider.

CAO official says it’s never had to reapply to HACA

CAO has never had to reapply through a RFP mandated by HACA, Repass said, adding that it has submitted its proposal to HACA.

“This is the first time that they have done an RFP for the child care space that I am aware of,” Repass told The Watchdog. “And I have been here for 21 years, and the person before me never mentioned it.”

Repass said CAO did meet with Pierre last August and she said wanted to put out a RFP. He said she later left a voicemail “indicating that a contract was in place and we could discuss a path forward later and plan strategies that would be helpful to all.”

He acknowledged that CAO had not been keeping up with its annual token payment to HACA because it hadn’t received any invoices over the years, but it “rectified that with a payment delivered last month.”

He said HACA requested that CAO come up with a cash payment to help support the agency. CAO agreed to pay $2,500 in addition to the maintenance, utilities, and previous renovations for the Pisgah View, Hillcrest and Lonnie D. Burton centers.

“Upon receiving an invoice, we paid it and considered that inclusive of the token lease payments that had not been paid,” he said.

Repass also said CAO did not know in August that HACA would be terminating all of CAO’s leases.

“It was a surprise to me when we received the letter indicating that they were going to terminate the leases,” he said. “We were hoping to have more information and be able to give parents accurate assurances about the centers/locations.”

He said that by May, it was apparent that “we did not have information and would not have information about the nature of our summer or fall locations.”

“We decided then to talk with staff and parents to give them the information that we had available,” he said.

Parents raise concerns

The sudden announcement leaves families and members of the communities worried and with a lot of questions. They say the current child care has worked for them.

Nyoka Robinson helps drop off and pick up her granddaughter, Marilyn from the Head Start program at Hillcrest. Robinson said she was surprised to hear the announcement and she hasn’t heard anything from HACA.

“It came about so quickly. We just heard about this,” she said. “It’s not like it’s been coming and they’ve been saying this for a long time.”

She said that without the promise of kids being able to remain in the center next school year, parents could face difficulties. She said if children have to travel farther to attend other Head Start programs that CAO provides, parents may have difficulty picking up and dropping off their kids, as some rely on nearby public transportation.

“My daughter does not drive. She has a learning disability,” Robinson said. “When I’m not able to pick [Marilyn] up, she’ll get an Uber or something. But you’re talking about moving these children so far out, now it’s not convenient anymore for those parents.”

“There’s just so many things that make me angry about it, because nobody’s clarified anything,” Robinson said. “All we know is, you got to go.”

Robinson said that if the next operator can meet the same standards that Head Start currently has in place for children and can provide more staff, longer hours and keep it free, “that’d be great.”

“I think that would be phenomenal. I just don’t know how they’re going to do that,” she said.

Jessica Hernandez, whose four-year-old son Dante attends Head Start at Hillcrest, said she has numerous questions.

“Are we going to move to a different classroom? Are we going to have to drive further away?” Hernandez asked. “Are we still going to be guaranteed a spot? Are these teachers losing their jobs? Like, what is happening?”

Hernandez said she’s already begun looking into other options for Dante. She said the current Head Start program has helped with Dante’s social, emotional, and medical needs.

Dante is enrolled in an individualized education program at Head Start, which allows him to work with a speech therapist, she said.

“Before he started school, he didn’t talk at all. He was three years old and didn’t talk, maybe a total of 15 words,” Hernandez said. “And now he’s speaking in semi-full sentences.”

Hernandez worries about what’s next.

“Once he has it, it’s like, how do you explain to him that he just doesn’t get to go anymore?” she said. “‘Mommy and Daddy can’t afford to send you’?”

Sharon Cunningham said her eight children attended Head Start and the program prepared them early on for the future.

“It’s a good program,” Cunningham said. “I really enjoyed the program, and my kids learned a lot. I have a nurse [and] two in nursing school.”

The deadline for bids has been extended to Wednesday, but the timing of the announcement of the chosen operator is unknown. While CAO has been the sole Head Start provider, HACA could decide to choose multiple childcare operators. The contract would begin August 1, giving the operator only a little over a month to move in if CAO is not chosen.

CAO partners with Buncombe County Schools, and will still have its Head Start program in 17 locations, including two in Madison County. If HACA does not award the organization with at least one of the facilities it currently operates in, it plans to work with parents to see if another Head Start location will meet their needs.

“Our goal is to continue to provide high-quality Head Start and our comprehensive support services and child health, nutrition and disabilities support to your children, family and the community,” Repass wrote in the May 6 letter.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Victoria A. Ifatusin joined us through a 12-month fellowship as part of the prestigious Scripps Howard Fund’s Roy W. Howard Fellowship program. You can reach her via email at [email protected]. The Watchdog’s reporting is made possible by donations from the community. To show your support for this vital public service please visit