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Heartland Head Start Hopes To Turn Corner After Internal Power Struggles, Workplace Issues

Heartland Head Start headquarters
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The federally funded Heartland Head Start typically serves hundreds of children and families in McLean and Livingston counties.

A dispute between leaders of a federally funded early childhood program for low-income families is nearing a resolution, leading to the resignation of the agency’s executive director.

An internal power struggle and other workplace culture issues at Heartland Head Start spilled into public view recently with the filing of a lawsuit by the nonprofit’s governance board against its policy council (a separate group that includes parents) and executive director Karen Bruning. The governance board and policy council butted heads over Bruning’s 2020 evaluation, according to the lawsuit. In January, the policy council voted to remove the governance board’s chair—something the lawsuit claimed it did not have the power to do.

The governance board, led by chair Julia Cotter, filed its lawsuit Jan. 26, asking a judge to help resolve the dispute and an injunction to stop the policy council from trying to make changes unilaterally. The governance board also sought a restraining order to prevent Bruning and others from badmouthing the governance board to Head Start employees and parents.

The parties have since worked out their differences, and the governance board is pursuing a motion to dismiss its own lawsuit, said its attorney, Nathan Hinch.

“They’ve had further conversations that helped sort out those differences of opinion, they’ve reached some common ground, and the lawsuit is no longer necessary,” Hinch said. “There was a willingness to put personal ego aside and put the organization first and try to work through some of these things.”

As part of the resolution, Bruning resigned March 19. Teri Meismer is Head Start’s new interim executive director. Tim Margherio, Susan Wordel. Kathy Trainor, and Emily Evanson round out the executive team.

The federally funded Heartland Head Start typically serves hundreds of children and families in McLean and Livingston counties.

“There was never a disruption in services to children and families,” Meismer told WGLT. “The core value of Heartland Head Start is the well-being of our children and families and that has never been in jeopardy. The governance board, policy council and staff were very cognizant and intentional throughout this process to ensure that.”

The lawsuit was only the latest sign of a difficult workplace culture within Heartland Head Start in recent years.

Still pending is a federal lawsuit against Heartland Head Start by former employee Mary Martin, which she filed in November. Martin claimed the agency violated the federal Family and Medical Leave Act when it approved and then revoked her request for a medical leave, and then retaliated against her. Martin said it was Bruning who stepped in after that leave was approved by Head Start’s HR director, demanding signoff from a doctor chosen by Head Start.

The HR director raised concerns about Bruning’s behavior on Martin’s case with the governance board, according to two 2017 letters obtained by WGLT.

In mid-March, Head Start’s attorneys asked for more time to respond to the lawsuit, citing “recent ongoing major transition and personnel changes” within the organization.

This isn’t the only recent instance of leadership turnover within the organization. In late 2019, two director-level employees (operations chief and director of children and family services) left the organization, as well as an HR specialist, Bruning said. At the time, Bruning told WGLT that staff turnover was common in the early childhood business, even for director-level positions.

“We have staff leave all the time. We’re a training ground,” Bruning said.

Those staff changes happened as the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) discovered during an annual monitoring visit in August 2019 that Heartland Head Start “did not have background clearances on file for several staff, and the background clearance issues carried over to the other three Heartland sites,” according to a DCFS spokesperson. Internal emails obtained by WGLT show Head Start staff referring to the situation as a “cluster” and “mess” that needed to be straightened out. The problem was resolved by early December 2019 without any violations being issued to Heartland Head Start, DCFS said.

That period in late 2019 was a period of “so much uneasiness and stress” for Heartland Head Start as “we were ensuring the validity and quality of our program for families and our frontline staff,” policy council members and staff wrote in a Jan. 8, 2021, letter to the governance board. In a letter Jan. 14, 2021, the governance board was accused by the policy council of placing “our agency and grant in jeopardy” 15 months ago, which would have been the fall of 2019. (The agency is funded by a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, plus local match funding.)

Separately, in 2018, Heartland Head Start and Bruning were sued by two former employees. They alleged Bruning sent an all-staff email falsely claiming they had been disciplined for wrongdoing and abandoned their jobs, with the goal of humiliating them. The women later dropped their lawsuit.

The former HR director involved in Martin’s case also flagged that all-staff email for board members, according to a letter obtained by WGLT. “This email disclosed confidential personnel information, including full names and discharge reasons. This email is an egregious breach of confidentiality and violates the rights of the people named in the email,” the former HR director wrote.

The all-volunteer governance board includes Normal Town Council member Karyn Smith and, until recently, Bloomington City Council member Jeff Crabill. Crabill said he resigned in January because, given other obligations, he couldn’t dedicate the time required for the position. He cited the “board dynamics with the executive director” and said he “didn’t feel like I could devote the time to it that I needed to.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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