Angry Norwalk Head Start parents jam City Hall, looking for answers

Correction, 1:49 p.m., Quote from single mom, quote from Stephenson

Updated, 2 a.m., complete story, four videos added; 3:33 a.m., quote added

NORWALK, Conn. – Angry parents, some holding children, crowded into Norwalk City Hall Thursday night, filling the atrium and entry hallway and chanting “Open our school” and asking on and off “Where is Moccia?”

The crowd of more than 100 people had come from Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), where they had been informed that the agency’s Head Start program would not be open Friday. Politicians arriving for a League of Women Voters threaded their way through an entry hallway lined by parents and children, while the more vocal members of the group congregated in the atrium, looking for answers. Norwalk Police – 11 cruisers, by one person’s count – arrived a short while later, filing in and observing peacefully as former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling tried to reassure the parents, though he did not at first know that there had been an announcement that the program was closed.

“We need to talk to (Mayor Richard) Moccia right now,” a woman who was holding a toddler said to Rilling.

Republican Town Committee Chairman Art Scialabba, who had come for the debate, said he didn’t know where the mayor was. There were no governmental meetings that would require Moccia’s presence going on in City Hall.

Scialabba pointed out that Thursday’s crisis had nothing to do with the city.

“The feds pulled the funding, not the city,” Scialabba said.

NEON interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson has said  repeatedly that part of NEON’s financial woes stem from the city’s refusal to continue providing funding that the agency relied on in part for Head Start. The city of Norwalk has denied $1.3 million in funding to NEON for the past two years, a total of $2.6 million.

“If the feds found reason to pull the money do you think the city should throw good money after bad? I mean, that’s a question that hasn’t been answered by NEON yet.”

The City Hall chaos was part of the fallout after the federal government issued a notice of summary suspension of “all federal financial assistance awarded to your agency … under the Head Start Act.”

The 11-page letter from the Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families contained a litany of reasons leading to the suspension, including items from a recent draft audit report from Connecticut Department of Social Services. Specifically cited were assertions in the audit of “inappropriate decisions made by NEON’s management,” and the DSS claim that “the likelihood of NEON becoming financially stable in the short term is remote.”

The suspension forbids NEON from incurring any more debt or spending more money for anything Head Start related, including salaries, for at least 30 days.

“They’re tired of being used,” Stephenson said of the parents who were protesting. “They’re tired of being abused and they’re tired of being unheard. There comes a time when we have to respect people. You do that by listening first. So all of the puppet masters, they need to figure out what to do from here because NEON is going to fight, because we provide awesome services. We do an awesome job and we’re going to do more because that’s what we need to do.”

Stephenson said the parents began organizing last week, forming a volunteer group and a fundraising committee.

“They made a decision,” she said. “They decided that their voices needed to be heard because they were tired of misinformation.”

NEON’s first indication that there was a new crisis came at 9:30 a.m. when a package arrived, according to Stephenson. At noon there was a phone call, she said. At 1:30 p.m. people walked in and said the Head Start program would be shut down at 5.

NEON did not have the opportunity to develop a transitional plan, Stephenson said.

“Our standpoint was we don’t have a problem if you’re deciding what you want to do is a summary suspension because we’re going to appeal it and we know that we have what we need,” she said. “The problem is the fact that, from a disrespectful standpoint, you didn’t inform the parents, you give them a flier? That’s not how we operate with our parents. We communicate with our parents.”

Parents said their children are being set up to fail.

“You worry about crime and this and this, if parents don’t have jobs what do you think this do to our crime rate?” one woman asked.

A woman who said she was a single parent spoke emotionally to Councilman David Watts (D-District A). “I came from the Malta House,” she said. “I don’t have a family. So who is going to pay my bills? I have just gotten on my feet and I need the support that I have from NEON and the school.”

Stephenson eventually assured the parents that Head Start would be open in a limited format Friday. She would find the funding to pay the employees, she said.

Most of the crowd left, leaving Stephenson to try to explain it all to the press.

“Who didn’t make families a priority?” she asked. “It sure wasn’t NEON. The office of Head Start needs to take a look at how it does business.”

Employees lingering outside later said that if they were caught talking to the press they would be immediately fired. When Rilling came out, one looked him in the eye and began crying.

“The community still needs it, what is Norwalk going to do? We might not even just lose Head Start, we might lose school readiness. What are we doing with 547 kids?” the employee asked.

“We have to do everything we can to keep that,” Rilling said.

“Last night we had a meeting and we were told it our jobs were OK, not for us to be hostile,” the employee said. “Then a day later? Not even 24 hours later? And you don’t want us not to be hostile? I have to go home and tell my kids that we might not have a paycheck? … They’re telling us now that it might be 30 days until we get paid. What do we tell our kids? What do we tell our kids for Christmas?”

Original story:

NORWALK, Conn. – Angry parents holding children crowded into Norwalk City Hall Thursday night, filling the atrium and entry hallway and chanting “open our school” and asking “where is Moccia?” on and off.

The crowd of more than 100 people had come from Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON), where they had been informed that the Head Start program would not be open Friday.  Some parents said, as Norwalk Police filed in, that if there was no school Friday, they would again miss work and no longer have jobs.

Mother, teachers and other concerned with the local Head Start program converge in the City Hall lobby Thursday night.

This was part of the fallout after the federal government issued a notice of summary suspension of “all federal financial assistance awarded to your agency … under the Head Start Act.”

The crowd dispersed after being assured by NEON interim CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson that Head Start would be open Friday, and that she would find a funder to pay the salaries of Head Start teachers. But an employee, who was terrified of being named, expressed conflicted feelings. Employees are expected at the Norwalk Inn tomorrow afternoon for an orientation with the Colorado company that has been given control of the Head Start program for 30 days, said the employee, who wants to be there for the parents tomorrow but also wants to retain employment.

The parents made the decision to go to City Hall themselves, NEON public information officer Scott Harris said. They wanted to make a statement, Stephenson said. Their presence drew 11 Norwalk Police cars.

Moccia was not there, but many other politicians were. Most were there for a League of Women Voters Common Council candidates at-large debate. Former Norwalk Police Chief Harry Rilling, Democratic candidate for mayor, said he had come for the Hispanic heritage show going on in Concert Hall. The crowd gathered around Rilling, as a baby cried and a mother said over and over again that she would not have a job tomorrow if Head Start was not open.


37 responses to “Angry Norwalk Head Start parents jam City Hall, looking for answers”

  1. M Allen

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand the purpose of the headline. I see the only mention of police being “Some parents said, as Norwalk Police filed in, that if there was no school Friday they would again miss work and no longer have jobs.”
    Did that warrant the headline making reference to the police presence?
    Was there something out of the ordinary about a police presence, at city hall, when a crowd of 200 people show up unannounced?
    There are some very serious issues related to this escalation of the problems at NEON, but I’m not sure the police presence was one of those issues. But thank you for not making the headline gratuitously political by saying something like “Desperate Norwalk Head Start parent mob storms city hall seeking out Moccia. Mayor deploys Special Services Unit in Response”

    1. Mark Chapman

      @ M. Allen

      The story is being updated, but 11 cruisers responding to an impromptu gathering of this kind is certainly noteworthy and will be part of the updated story. After all, look at all the potential police OT… And why would you or anyone even think the mayor would be in the headline? He was not there, nor would there be any reason, beyond political or being a commanding, reassuring presence, for him to be there. If he tried to be that presence it likely would have not worked, given the mood and the fact that NEON blames him for a goood amount of its trouble because he stopped giving it city money until the agency gets things under control. Unless someone made a quick call, there was no way he would even know about it.

  2. Don’t Panic

    Wow. This situation with NEON just gets crazier with each passing day.

  3. ScopeonNorwalk

    If I was the employee I would be at the training. No reason to be conflicted. NEON doesn’t even own the building so they can’t decide if it will be open or not. People please use your brains. For at least the next 30 days the employer you need to be worried about is this Colorado agency.

  4. M Allen

    Mark, I just thought that after reading the Hour’s article, which had a lot of details about the actual issues, that the reference to police presence would be an after thought (as it was in the content of your story written thus far) rather than a headline. No big deal. I guess if it was just an “impromptu gathering” of 200 people chanting for the Mayor then security at City Hall isn’t necessary. The joke about what the headline was just that, a joke, referencing the chanting for him. He wasn’t there but luckily candidate Rilling was and apparently David Watts was on rapid respond detail. It begs the question of: was this actually impromptu? That’s a lot of people for impromptu.
    I suppose my initial reaction to the headline was because it misses the point. Look, there are serious issues here, as I know you know. I think its great that these folks “showed up” to find out what the city can do to help them, because they truly need help. But why are they chanting for the Mayor when they should probably be chanting for Chiquita’s head on a proverbial pike along with the rest of the leadership down there, and perhaps even some Directors. But something tells me they won’t look for that. There are martyrs to be made for all of this. In the end, I really wonder what the city can do at this point that won’t be looked at as being used for political purposes this close to the election. This has damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t written all over it.

  5. Norwalk Lifer

    I am sure when Moccia no longer reports for work, there won’t be 100 people at City Hall protesting for his employment.

    This is an abomination, while NEON needs to get it’s act together, the truth is, if the mayor were a leader, REGARDLESS, of the NEON situation, he would have found some alternate way to handle the situation; City Hall is a big place, and the Common Council hall is a fine place to house those kids today so that the people who work and play by the rules in this town would have venue for their kids.

    You mean to tell me, that a call out to our citizens to volunteer to watch those kids today would have gone unheeded? I have more faith in the people in this town than I do the town officials.

    I would volunteer, I am sure my neighbors would volunteer, we were never asked. We just get to read the nonsense that people who do not have to struggle to get good preparation for their kids to attend public schools be medicine balls in this little comedy.

    Once again, this town wraps itself in legal speak and legislation to avoid any personal and real time in involvement in helping other citizens.

    It’s sub standard.

    Norwalk Lifer

  6. Norwalk Lifer

    One last comment, Thank you NON, for continuing to shed light on this town, the Hour certainly does not, nor does the Norwalk Daily Voice.

    You guys are the real deal

    Norwalk Lifer

  7. M. Murray’s

    Not sure why they are protesting at Coty hall and chanting for Moccia. This was a federal decision. They should be marching at the White House and calling for Obama’s head.

  8. Notaffiliated

    A couple things come to mind this morning. It’s great to see this piece but I scroll through all the selections this morning and there appears to be an “in the pocket” for the Democrat candidate. Didn’t I read the other day that the Federal Government pulled the funding on NEON??? Come on Nancy and Mark – you CAN do better on reporting the story

    Reality is that probably none of these people would loose their jobs if there was no school on Friday because the level of people not working in this country is at an all time high (no, not the unemployment numbers). Moccia or Rilling have next to zero control over this – just as Knopp, Espisito etc etc.

  9. Don’t Panic

    Has anybody done the math to see whether the funding that the city pulled from NEON is roughly the same as the money used to “fully fund” the lauded Republican budget that almost every Republican candidate laid claim to in their LWV questionnaires (even if they weren’t on the council to vote for it)?

  10. Lisa Len

    Why not have every Sr Director who received a substantial raise over the past year pay the employees to keep the services open for the NEON families?

  11. The Norwalker

    You have to admit that the Mayor’s decision to cut off funding for Norwalk Headstart months ago was not going to help NEON to succeed in any way.

    NEON was faced with the choice of continuing to operate a large program without funding or the bad press that would come with closing their Headstart Program months ago.

    Similar to the current problems that has derailed our Federal Government, NEON and the Mayor should have been able to work together to avoid this disruption of service to Headstart Families.

    NEON does have a lot of problems, but running a large program without the funding designated to it is impossible and I remind you that the Office of Headstart only recently de-funded NEON.

    One of the parties, the Mayor or NEON was never planning to collaborate for positive outcome.

  12. Impromtu protest?

    It’s ironic that Ms Stephenson uses the word puppet masters as Rilling, Watts and Pena over see in the background. And does no one in that crowd question her position as a leader at NEON? Like sheep being rounded up and led off….. The entire episode is sad.

  13. WHAT?

    “Our standpoint was we don’t have a problem” — this is Stephenson’s response. This is why half the board quit over the last month — the letters from the feds warned of this for months and Stephenson kept saying the feds are lying, we don’t have a problem.

    Stephenson is that one person in the marching band who is out of step, but she knows secretly in her mind that really it is the entire rest of the band that is out of step.

    This is not the government shutdown, and it is not anything the city can fix. Even if the city paid the whole tab, the feds would not allow NEON to run Headstart anymore. Go to the letter from the feds attached to the story in the HOUR and read what is said. The program is not being run in a way that is SAFE FOR THE KIDS. But don’t worry, Stephenson’s “standpoint” is there is no problem.

  14. M Allen

    I know that many of us have a habit of merely using these forums to critique and assault the stories and subjects we read about. However, NEON and through it the families of the programs it provides has now hit one further critical point in its existence. We as taxpayers and citizens need to recognize that the collapse of the agency is not good for the city. Better to have some structure to work with than just the burning hulk that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
    We all know the issues. We all know senior management and the board of Directors need to go. But the organization does not need to be burned to the ground to prove the point. It is time the organization is siezed by whichever government entity has the power to do it, put it on life support and begin the rebuilding process. If that takes dollars from the city, state or federal government, so be it. The wreckage this will leave behind is more than just Head Start, which is counted on by so many WORKING families. Let’s stop the painful death of the organization, even if that means cutting out some good tissue with the bad.

  15. Daisy

    M. Murray – so right. They should be in DC protesting, city had nothing to do with this in either direction. Dick didn’t do it and Harry didn’t try to stop it. He’s always pandering, so it’s no surprise he was there to get them further riled up.
    AND those parents shouldn’t have been surprised, they should have been looking around for other options for MONTHS>

  16. Oldtimer

    Sad is the right word. Trying to keep Head Start running without the grant from the City was well intentioned, but doomed to fail. Merging with a similar agency in Stamford, also in deep financial problems, was ill advised. If anything can be salvaged at this point remains to be seen, but the prospects are not good. The interim CEO, sent by the State, seems to have accomplished very little. Finding the right manager to get NEON back on it’s feet will be a real challenge. Looking to Moccia for help is clearly a waste of time.

  17. M Allen

    The Notice of Summary Suspension issues by the US Department of Health and Human Services is absolutely damning. I don’t see it included on the NoN website,:
    Given all of the difficulties NEON faces, I am speculating that Head Start is not coming back under NEON management anytime in the near future.
    For whomever would like to make this an issue that falls at the feet of Mayor Moccia and the fact that the City of Norwalk pulled $1.3 million in funding, you are simply dead wrong. That funding may have kept NEON and its various programs afloat, but it would have just been masking the unadulterated mismanagement that continues to take place to this day. Even though it would have beenefited the end users, the families that depend upon NEON for assistance, it would still be a misuse of city funds.
    I reiterate once again: whatever government agency has the authority, needs to step in and seize full and total control of the organization. Management and the current board need to be removed in their entirety and the organization needs to be restructured and stabilized. At the same time, an investigation into the mismanagement needs to be opened by the relevant agency or State’s Attorney. But the first priority has to be ensuring that proper service is reestablished as soon as possible.

    (This comment was edited to provide the line to a story on this site that has a link to the letter in question.)

    1. Mark Chapman

      @M. Allen

      I edited your comment to give the link to the other NEON story on the site, the very next story under this one. It is the story about NEON’s program suspension and response to the draft audit. The story includes the highlights from the letter, and a link to the letter and the NEON responses to the DSS audit.

      Thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments, as always.

  18. JustAsking

    Why don’t these parents call for the removal of Stephenson and the rest of the high priced executives who have driven NEON and this program to the ground? This has nothing to do with the Mayor nor the City. Neither the present Mayor, nor past Mayors nor the City of Norwalk create this mess at NEON. Why should the City have provided funding, so that salaries at NEON could go up 200%? Stop the political posturing. Parents should demand accountability and the dismissal of the inept (but highly compensated) leaders at NEON and not try to pin the blame on City Hall.

  19. bill

    I’m guessing 90% of those parents are mad because they won’t be able to go to their jobs that pay cash under the table and thus they will have to actually watch their own kids instead of not pay taxes and getting government subsidies for childcare, I am truly saddened for them.

  20. Oldtimer

    Can’t help wondering who called the police and what was reported that needed an 11 car police response.
    Did that response leave any police patrol units on the street, available for other calls ? Were most of the officers soon reassigned elsewhere ?

  21. WHAT?

    Listen, the fact that many of you commenting above are even including the issue of Norwalk pulling its funding means two things: 1) you are listening to the total BS and misdirection that Stephenson repeatedly offers that the City funds have anything to do with this; and 2) you don’t understand how the federal Headstart grant works and why the feds are so pissed at NEON.

    Headstart money goes directly from the feds to NEON and can only be spent on Headstart things. For example, feds give ‘x’ amount of dollars for Headstart lunches and ‘x’ amount of dollars for Headstart healthcare. So, if you read the attached docs from the Feds, they would like to know why there are no lunches, first aid kits in the schools; and why are the vendors that provided those things not paid. So where did the money go they would like to know? The audacity of marching to City Hall and going after the City is a total headfake, don’t go for it. These are lies people, the feds have been papering and warning NEON of this since June, and they are all too dishonest to admit that they don’t know what to do, even with all that hard work Stephenson did getting a high school diploma.

    And to M Allen, it’s too late, NEON already is a “burning hulk that needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.”

  22. The Norwalker

    You can’t say that withholding $1.3 million of funding would have anything but a negative effect on a regional Nonprofit.

    Again remember that the Funding Source only recently cutoff funding to NEON.

  23. LWitherspoon

    None of this had to happen. Financial irregularities arose which NEON had ample opportunity to correct to the satisfaction of its funders. I can only conclude that it has not done so, since the State is displeased and the Federal government has now decided to pull funding. Board Members have resigned en masse because they have been dissatisfied with the agency’s financial management.
    In the meantime, multiple times NEON has promised to reveal everything that went on, but their disclosures seem to contain more feel-good jargon than fact. Ms. Stephenson’s comments in the video are more of the same. Somebody at the board level needs to start with explaining exactly what went wrong, including how much money was lost to outright fraud or other questionable expenses, and how much was simply an accounting error. Then and only then can NEON begin to get out from under this cloud, and begin to repair relationships with funders. What steps has NEON taken to fix the problems, and why are city, state, and federal government agencies all dissatisfied with those steps? There is a lot of heat about this issue in the media, but not very much light.
    The decision by the Federal government appears to vindicate the earlier decision by the City to withhold funding.
    Elected officials and aspiring elected officials who use these unfortunate events to serve their own personal interests should be ashamed. Did anyone else catch the smirk on Warren Pena’s face when he told the assembled crowd that the Head Start closure was due to mismanagement at NEON?
    One last thought – a recent Norwalk Hour story quotes a woman talking about how NEON has served her family over the course of multiple generations. If an anti-poverty agency needs to serve the same family for multiple generations, how effectively is that agency fighting poverty?

  24. EastNorwalkChick

    Once again Ms. Stephenson is pointing fingers and blaming someone else for Neon’s mismanagement. It is sad that she has misinformed these parents, blaming Neon’s problems on the City, when in fact the pulling of the funding is just a small piece of this puzzle.
    Maybe Ms. Stephenson should deny her own salary for a month if she is so concerned for all these people affected by the defunding of the agency….but I highly doubt that her and the other executive staff would do so.

  25. RU4REAL

    Even though Moccia has no control over the Head Start decision, he should have been there for the concerned parents at city hall.
    It would have been the right thing for a mayor to do, it can be seen as a lack of leadership in a crisis, it was a clearly uncomfortable place to be with 11 police cars showing up as well as a lack of understanding that for those parents, the crisis was real.
    I would hope his guy Art called him and let him know what was going on at city hall.
    Darn someone to have called and told him he was late for a ribbon cutting!

  26. Don’t Panic

    Angry parents seeking information? Quick, send out a reverse 911 call–oh wait, those are only for letting you know about recycling containers!

  27. Tim T

    This almost seems like a setup how Rilling and Watts just happened to be at city hall. It would not surprise me considering the poll on the Daily Voice shows Rilling has all but lost the election.

    As a side note is the Daily Voice no longer??? I went to the site to check the updated poll results and the site has been down for hours. First with some weird message and now just the DV logo…Looks like it could be the end of them??

    (To your first point, there were several things happening at City Hall last night around that time, including a League of Women Voters Common Council forum and a Hispanic Heritage Month program. As we were told, the NEON folks gathered at the Ely school, then decided to head for City Hall. From what I could see in the video, and from what Nancy saw, Rilling, Watts and Warren Pena were the only ones to stop and talk with the crowd. To your second, my guess is they are having site trouble. It happened occasionally while we worked there. We were down late the other night for less than an hour due to server problems. It happens. Oh, and don’t put too much stock in those polls. Let’s just say they are highly unscientific…)

  28. Don’t Panic

    The video also shows the presence of at least four republican councilpeople who made their way through the protest, and it didn’t look like they made an effort to find out what was on the minds of their fellow citizens. Jerry Petrini, Doug Hempstead, Sarah Mann and Bonefant (a candidate).
    Pretty sure the Hour reported that a LWV common council forum was held that night. It is likely Mr. Watts and Mr. Rilling were there to be seen by voters who were there for the forum. Not a setup.
    Can we focus on what the community is losing, instead of playing politics?

  29. David Angelo Watts

    @ Tim T

    Hispanic Heritage Program (Concert Hall) , The League of Women Voters at-large debate (Community Room) and the Health, Welfare and Public Safety Committee were all happening at City Hall. Should we walk by the crowd without addressing their concerns? I was taught in Sunday School, The Parable of the Good Samaritan and I will not walk by people in need of service.

    Please, watch the beginning of the video, notice the exchange between a NEON Board member and myself. I clearly stated that he was acting unprofessional and he walked away. Imagine a city council member actually at City Hall. It’s been my second home for 2 years, come on?

    Great Job, NPD! I am so proud of you!

  30. Susan Wallerstein

    Reading through 31 comments @WHAT? & @JustAsking represent my understanding of this most unfortunate, yes tragic, situation.

  31. RU4REAL

    You don’t believe the four Repubs would actually stop to speak with constituent’s in a crisis, do you?
    You do realize they cant make a move with out permission from the top, I am surprised that Mr. Hempstead walked by, I thought he was above the follow the leader over the cliff campaign their running.
    I guess they are all scared of Mocciawrath.

  32. Daisy

    Moccia was probably already committed elsewhere that night. Scialabba was there. This is SICK – I wish I was a relative of Stephenson’s and could have collected a nice salary for a while for doing not much.

  33. jlightfield

    It is time for other non profits to step in and pick up programs and services that NEON is now unable to perform. These programs should not be left to fall apart because of the misguided management of NEON’s present management and board.
    The City of Norwalk, should immediately terminate the lease of Ben Franklin and Ely school to NEON. The City of Norwalk should immediately offer assistance to Community Development Institute (CDI) to open Ely school as a Headstart location.
    The City of Norwalk should immediately contact the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and help secure the furnishings and classroom materials that are part of the Headstart program and funded by Headstart dollars t Ely.
    Norwalk’s legislative delegation should immediately assist CDI in obtaining the state license to run Headstart in Norwalk.
    A crisis is at hand here, and this situation has spiraled well beyond one of simple mismanagement or political grandstanding.

  34. Better Norwalk

    Well, that “unscientific” poll shows the following:

    Of those that voted in the poll, 72 percent said they supported Moccia, including 26 percent of the total who said they had changed their vote to Moccia since September. About 26 percent said they supported Rilling, including 10 percent of the whole who had changed their vote to Rilling since the nomination. The remaining 2 percent were still undecided.

    Vote row A: Moccia for Mayor and keep Norwalk moving FORWARD!

  35. Gina

    Moving FORWARD, with Moccia? Moving forward, again, really? Do we live in the same town? Or do some think the entire electorate is blind and deaf?

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