Housing Authority restores competitive bidding for early education

Monique Pierre HACA
NONCOMPLIANT: “We’ve been out of compliance for 14 years,” Monique Pierre, president and CEO of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, told the organization’s Board of Commissioners at its May 22 meeting. Photo by Caleb Johnson

More than a decade overdue, the city’s Housing Authority is seeking bids to provide early education and child care for its residents.

According to Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA) President and CEO Monique Pierre, the nonprofit Community Action Opportunities (CAO) has provided Head Start at three HACA spaces — Pisgah View, Hillcrest and Lonnie D. Burton — since 2009. Head Start is a federal preschool program that provides early childhood education for children ages 3-5 from low-income families. During that time, the Authority has never issued a request for proposals (RFP) from child care service providers.

Public housing agencies must rebid contracts every five years under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations.

“We’ve been out of compliance for 14 years,” Pierre told a May 22 meeting of the HACA Board of Commissioners.

Brian Repass, director of the Children, Family and Community Partnership Department at CAO, which operates the three Head Start locations, declined Xpress’ request to review the lease for the program’s three locations. “We are not providing any documentation other than the letter we provided to families,” he wrote in May 20 email.

In a separate May 20 email, he declined to comment on the current situation. “During the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville RFP procurement process for the child care centers we are unable to discuss details about the process,” he wrote.

Repass continued, “If any responder is seen as trying to subvert the procurement process through influence, HACA may disqualify the respondent.  … [W]e have been very careful to not engage in any way that could be seen as trying to influence the outcome of the RFP process.”

Xpress later reached out to Repass requesting the confirmation of dates and times related to conversations with HACA. He responded, “I apologize, but during the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville RFP procurement process for the child care centers, we are unable to discuss details about the process.”

However, Repass was quoted in a May 28 report in Asheville Watchdog.

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

In a May 6 email to Head Start parents, Repass wrote that HACA was “terminating our leases.” He went on to state “if Community Action Opportunities Head Start is not chosen to be the child care provider, Head Start services would not be available at this location.”

However, when Pierre was asked on May 28 if a vendor other than CAO applying for the RFP could provide the Head Start program, she responded, “Our RFP is open to all potential child care providers.”

Under Review: At its May 22 meeting, HACA Board of Commissioners reviewed documents related to Head Start programs at three of its locations. Photo by Caleb Johnson

She continued, “We are interested in the best respondent that can best meet the needs of our residents.”

‘Intellectually dishonest’

Pierre was appointed by the Board of Commissioners for HACA as president and CEO of HACA in April 2023. She says rebidding for a contract for use of HACA properties “is actually how we should be doing things,” she says. “And if it wasn’t done that way before, that’s not my problem.”

At the May 22 HACA Board of Commissioners meeting, Pierre shared a timeline of HACA’s engagement with CAO. She says HACA spoke with CAO representatives on Aug. 14. “At that time, I informed them that due to federal procurement guidelines, we would have to procure for child care services,” she says. On Feb. 29, HACA sent a letter to CAO that “was the official notice to vacate, with information [about] our desire to do something else with our facilities,” Pierre told the commissioners. On April 8, HACA issued the RFP for a child care operator on its website, she says.

In May, Pierre received an email from a member of the community, who requested anonymity due to their ties with Head Start, asking why the program’s HACA locations were being closed so abruptly and the classrooms emptied immediately. (Their email exchange was shared with Xpress by a third party.)

In an interview with Xpress, Pierre reiterates that CAO was informed months earlier about the need to rebid for a contract for the use of HACA space. “I wish they had not waited until the last minute to inform their parents of the process because that makes it seem like Housing [Authority] didn’t inform them, and that’s what the narrative has been,” she says. “But we took efforts to make sure that their provider, which is the Community Action Opportunities, was aware of the situation.”

Pierre adds that she wishes that CAO had seen HACA’s adherence to the rules of HUD’s application process as protection for everyone involved. “There are certain regulations we have to comply with,” Pierre tells Xpress. “Good partners don’t ask you to do the wrong thing. … A good partner doesn’t ask you to break the rules.” CAO, she says, “chose to … stir up the public concern by saying things like we’re ending child care or we’re cutting off child care in our communities when they knew that is intellectually dishonest. That is not what we are doing.”

Pierre says she believes competition among child care providers will serve families better. At the May 22 HACA meeting, she noted that Head Start’s child care services end at 2:30 p.m. daily and wondered if that might pose difficulties for families who work until the evening.

“When there’s a lack of competition, you end up with other problems,” Pierre told Xpress. “We want full-day child care and child enrichment. We want all those things. We want to make sure that our children who are living in public housing have every opportunity for those slots in child care that’s affordable.” She continued, “We’re asking for more child care availability, not less; more preschool preparedness, not less, and there has to be an understanding that classrooms that are underutilized are not optimal for anyone.”

In a statement to Xpress, City Council member and HACA liaison Antanette Mosley said, “HACA has many community partnerships, some that have existed for decades. As with any organization, those partnerships must be reevaluated periodically to ensure that the residents are best served and HACA facilities are being utilized in their highest and best use.”

At the May 22 HACA Board of Commissioners meeting, Pierre said that four child care service providers have submitted applications but declined to disclose them publicly. The RFP process closed May 29.

Avoiding influence

In a May 15 email addressed to Head Start employees, Repass wrote “… it is important that Head Start staff not initiate or engage in any efforts to influence the HACA RFP processes. During the RFP process, any effort by CAO staff to impact the process through advocacy could lead them to disqualify our application.”

Repass’ email continued, “An example would be attending the HACA board meeting could be interpreted as trying to unduly influence the outcome of the RFP process and could get us kicked out of the process.”

Xpress asked Pierre in an email if HACA administration issued a directive that attendance at the May 22 HACA board meeting could result in a provider’s expulsion from the application process. In a May 28 email, Pierre wrote that she’d told a community member they couldn’t correspond about the procurement process over email, as their conversation could be seen improperly influencing the outcome of the RFP decision. “I never conveyed that they can’t make public statements at a board meeting,” Pierre wrote.

‘Empty classrooms’

At the May 22 HACA Board of Commissioners meeting, Pierre shared that her August discussion with CAO also addressed Head Start underutilizing its classroom space. She says she has seen empty classrooms at the Burton and Hillcrest Head Start facilities.

“I would have expected those classrooms to be bursting at the seams, understanding the need for affordable child care in Buncombe County and the City of Asheville and specifically given the number of children that reside in public housing,” Pierre told the board. She referred the board to an informational packet about the demographics of children in HACA housing: 222 infants to 1-year-olds, 335 2- and 3-year-olds, and 398 4- to 5-year-olds.

“With a total of 3,458 children that reside in our public housing, it’s my estimation that not one classroom should be underutilized,” Pierre said. “We all have an obligation to the children and the families that live in public housing to do better.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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