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SMILE Community Action Agency is pictured Thursday, November 21, 2019, in Lafayette, La.

Applications are being accepted from agencies interested in providing Head Start and Early Head Start services in Lafayette, Iberia and St. Martin parishes.

Those selected will replace the contractor that temporarily took over the early childhood programs in 2017 when SMILE Community Action Agency lost its federal grant.

Patrick Fisher, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, in an email reply to questions, said the funding announcement is "an open competitive opportunity for community-based organizations" to apply for up to $12.4 million to implement Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the three parishes. Should the competition result in an award to a new Head Start agency, the services of Community Development Institute Head Start, the contractor currently providing the services, would no longer be needed.

The  St. Martin, Iberia, Lafayette Community Action Agency, headquartered on St. John Street in Lafayette, "is excluded from competing" for five years from the date its grant was terminated, Fisher wrote, which was in July 2017.

Following months of turmoil at the SMILE CAA, much of it involving division within its board of trustees, possible violations of the state open meetings law, lawsuits and the improper appointment of a new director, the Regional Office of Head Start learned in January 2017 that two cases of alleged abuse by Head Start personnel in 2015 weren't properly reported to state and federal agencies. The Office of Head Start gave SMILE 30 days to correct problems. In April, the regional office conducted a follow-up review that resulted in termination of SMILE's approximately $14 million annual Head Start grant.

The termination letter described three instances where teachers allegedly scratched or pinched students and one in which a child was allegedly left alone sleeping on a cot for 11 minutes.

The federal agency found in its follow-up investigation that, not only were those problems not addressed, additional deficiencies and non-compliance were found, including a 5-year-old child left alone at a bus stop.

Community Development Institute Head Start was appointed by the federal agency to operate the former Head Start and Early Head Start programs once SMILE lost its grant in 2017.

The deadline to apply for the grant is Jan. 13. Eligible applications will be reviewed and evaluate by a non-federal review panel, Fisher said. Negotiations will take place with successful applicants and awards will be made "to the agency best qualified to provide Head Start and/or Early Head Start services in this area," he said.

The $12.4 million may be distributed between more than one applicant, depending upon the outcome of the competitive application process.

Private and public agencies may apply, including city governments, parish governments, independent school districts, public and private institutions of higher education, public housing authorities, nonprofits with 501(c)(3) status, and small businesses.

Email Claire Taylor at ctaylor@theadvocate.com.