NEON holding tight onto Head Start families

NEON 025-20130911
Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson talks to board members on Sept. 11. That was after Head Start officials informed board members that they were designating NEON as a high risk award status grantee, former board member Susan Weinberger said.

(Updated 5:20 a.m. Oct. 28 with Facebook post;  12:09 a.m. Oct. 28 with press release announcing day care opening.)

NORWALK, Conn. – The children who are enrolled in Norwalk’s Head Start program are heading back to Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) Monday morning, rather than to a Head Start program operated by the company called in by the federal government, a source says.

Community Development Institute (CDI), the interim Head Start agency appointed by the Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families to take over NEON’s program for at least 30 days, has set up a hot line to keep parents informed about when — and if — the program will resume, CDI’s Brett Parmenter said. The number is 855-294-5718.

On Sunday evening, the hot line said:

“Dear Head Start parent,

“This message was recorded Oct. 27th, 2013. The federal office of Head Start has suspended Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now their authority to administer the Head Start program effective Oct. 24, 2013. Your Head Start program will be operated by Community Development Institute Head Start, who will serve as the interim manager for this program. CDI Head Start as promised in the parent community meeting Oct. 25, 2013, extended invitations to meet with NEON, Inc. both Saturday and Sunday. These invitations produced no meetings to be able to negotiate an agreement to operate under the license of NEON, Inc. as promised. Due to the circumstances, CDI Head Start will not be operating Head Start services on Monday, the 28th of October 2013. NEON also has not informed us whether they will have centers open and be operating services for your child tomorrow. We are hopeful that CDI Head Start will be able to operate Head Start services as soon as possible. In order to do this, CDI has started engaging important start-up activities now including space, licensing, staffers, vendors and insurance. ….”

The NEON general information line offered no additional information. A phone call to NEON interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson did not produce results, as she did not answer and her voice mail was full. A second line just rang with no voice mail pickup. Neither NEON board Chairman Michael Berkhoff nor NEON Communications Director Scott Harris returned a phone call or an email.

There were no fliers posted at NEON’s offices at 98 South Main St., at the Nathaniel Ely School or the Ben Franklin Center.

It was not until 11:07 p.m. Sunday that NEON emailed this press release:

Head Start parents can bring their children to school tomorrow morning, Monday, October 28th.

Although NEON Inc. is no longer operating the Norwalk Head Start program, day care facilities at Nathaniel Ely School and Ben Franklin Center in Norwalk will be open under the normal schedule.

At 5:01 a.m. Monday NEON posted an announcement on Facebook telling parents to bring their children to school Monday morning.

Former board member John Mosby was at a Sunday morning meeting for Head Start parents.

“They gonna have childcare tomorrow,” he said Sunday night, “but it won’t be under the name of NEON,” he said. “…. They say that they got a little grant to pay to have Head Start tomorrow, they say they will be open. They didn’t tell us where they got the grant.”

NEON did not say how many days of Head Start-like activity the grant will fund but they did tell everyone to report to work Monday, and that they will be paid, according to Mosby. He said he had seen Berkhoff head into a secret meeting with Stephenson.

Mosby said he is still trying to get copies of $800,000 in uncleared checks from NEON. He said he and other people are upset about the lack of community involvement in the situation.

Board member Jack O’Dea said he has “no idea” what is going on.

“Clearly something is going on that I’m not aware of,” he said. “This stuff doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t figure it out.”

O’Dea said whatever that is seemed to have been going on for several months. He said he did not know what would happen next.

Former board member Susan Weinberger said she had known what was happening. She said it was obvious as far back as Sept. 11 that NEON’s Head Start program was headed for a shutdown.

That was when a team from the Regional Office of Head Start met with board members prior to a regular board meeting for what was scheduled as two hours of training on Head Start operations, she said. That was the first of many such training sessions that were planned to take place prior to board meetings going forward to familiarize the new board about policies of the CAFCA (Connecticut Association for Community Action) agency, she said.

When the team arrived they asked NEON staff to leave and met only with board members, she said.

“The express purpose of the meeting was to inform us that they were designating NEON as a high risk award status grantee and outlined a specific set of deficiencies,” Weinberger wrote in an email. “In light of this shocking news, my greatest concern based on the findings was questions around safety of our children. When the meeting was over and the team left, members of the board met in executive session with the management team. We reported on what we had learned. In my opinion, there was a casual reaction of management to a serious, critical situation. I was so concerned that parents would pull their children out of the program when they heard about the safety issues. Management chose not to make the report public.”

The closure of the program was not sudden, she said.

“It was coming for a long time,” she wrote. “The management team of NEON continues to blame everyone but themselves.”


14 responses to “NEON holding tight onto Head Start families”

  1. EveT

    This puts Head Start parents between a rock and a hard place. They’re supposed to drop off their kids not knowing who’s responsible, whether insurance is still in force, who is supervising the staff. If they keep their kids home, they miss a day of work and risk losing their jobs.

    Mayor Moccia is not directly at fault, but it certainly looks like a failure of leadership that city hall never scrutinized and addressed the NEON situation during Moccia’s 8 years in office. Time for a new mayor.

  2. C.G.

    If Ms. Stephenson cares for these families as she professes and wants them no longer “abused”, she should step aside for a competent agency to take over. Ms. Stephenson, please do the right thing!

  3. Oldtimer

    Moccia continued a 1.3 million dollar annual grant for NEON until he became aware of an audit showing $400,000 misused. He then suspended the entire City grant “until Joe Mann is out” After Mann was out, he did not reinstate the City Grant and pretty much took the attitude “prove you don’t need it”. For the last two years, when effective leadership would have helped, he did nothing for NEON. Now he wonders why he is getting no support from NEON or the people they serve. Losing Head Start is a final sad cap on Moccia’s years in office.

  4. M Allen

    Yes, let’s blame Mayor Moccia for NEON’s failings. If pulling $1.3 million in annual funding doesn’t get their attention, what exactly would you have liked him to do? Walk in there and do what? Put more and different people on the board? That has worked out well.
    Other than pulling the funding and keeping it pulled, what power does the Mayor have to change those who will not be changed? And what exactly has his opponent publicly stated he will do? Some other form of feel good maneuver that yields no results? Would he have opened the public spigot once again in the hopes that throwing money at the problem of mismanagement and potential fraud would make it all go away? WWHD?

  5. Oldtimer

    M Allen
    With his control over the annual 1.3 million grant, he could, and should, as a condition of the grant, appointed a competent CFO, reporting to the NEON board and to the mayor. Do you think for a moment anyone would argue with that, with the grant hanging in the balance ? Now, two years later, he could be taking credit for having saved them from all this drama as an example of his brilliant leadership. Now he just looks like the bully a lot of us knew all along he was. As that image sinks in, a lot of votes will go elsewhere, as did a lot of campaign contributions.

  6. M Allen

    Oldtimer, I’m not saying you’re completely wrong, but there is no evidence you’re completely right either. From what I can tell, NEON management and its board has not been overly receptive to anyone telling them what to do. Could they not have struck that deal themselves by saying: give us the money and we’ll do whatever you want. Perhaps there was complete willingness on the NEON side to do all the right things if the Mayor had simply put a contingency in place. But where is the evidence of that? Is it in the public words of Ms. Stephenson or the former CEO to do the right things? And since words are cheap, was it in their deeds? What is the Mayor to do when even the board doesn’t know what is going on down there?
    I know its election season. I know everything wrong with Norwalk is because of Mayor Moccia. My car needs breaks and damn him for letting that happen. When will we admit that there is more than just one side to any issue. This is not all at the feet of the Mayor and he couldn’t fix it alone. Where is the blame on Warren Pena for his work against NEON, while he then looks those parents in the face and feels their pain? Just as it is with the Head Start funding and the pulling of the convict program, the way to get people’s attention is by pulling funding to bring them to their senses. NEON has yet to come to its senses.

  7. Oldtimer

    M Allen
    You don’t agree that he had choices that would have given him something to brag about ? You don’t suspect for a minute that anybody at NEON would, or could, have resisted a mayor-appointed CFO with lots of authority if it was the only way to get the City grant ? Actually, grants would be the right word, and 2.6 million over the last two years would have made a tremendous difference. He got them to dump Joe Mann in the belief they would get the grant and then reneged.

  8. Karen

    Can we get access, somehow, to NEON’s original charter? A link, perhaps someone can upload to google doc’s for us? Than perhaps we can see where we are and what can be done? Or is it just easier, to play the blame game, for another week, anyway? And whats up with the board folks stating they don’t know whats going on? Why not? Who than, if not a board member? If we ca get the charter published we can than get an idea on how to proceed.

    1. Mark Chapman


      We are working on it. We are checking with our sources. As for the board members not knowing things, some of that is because they were not provided the information they asked for. That is what was cited by the board members who resigned (the ones who would talk publicly). We are continuing to work on this story. Thanks for reading.

  9. M Allen

    Oldtimer, You say CFO for $1.3 million. I say for $1.3 million, you want the money then clean house. And they weren’t willing to go there and give up their little fiefdom. I think you had a turf war here. Do I blame that on the Mayor? Not one bit, regardless of party. Any Mayor that would have handed over that money to put in the hands of people not responsible or capable enough to manage it properly would have been crucified. Probably by a number of people on here who are blaming him for not handing over the money now.

  10. Mrs. Ruby McPherson

    Not taken in consideration that they were not going to be funded was a big mistake. Also the hand pick board should also learn the guideline and regulation the federal and state requires for receiving any funds. And lets not forget with the merger is anything happening right with CTE? Rental or purchasing building and trucks or van especially for other relatives to keep a truck? What else, yes Neon needs better management and management who is just not for the money but care for the communities and know how to delegate .

  11. Dawn

    It is not the mayors responsibility to fix. Neon. They refused to do it.

  12. LWitherspoon

    NEON’s annual budget is about $14.3 million. The City’s grants committee – not Mayor Moccia – correctly withheld $1.3 million in taxpayer funds for NEON until the agency got its fiscal house in order. If a 9% funding cut wasn’t enough motivation for NEON to get its fiscal house in order, how exactly is a new CFO going to do it? Once hired, a new CFO would report to the Interim Director and Board, and those are the very same individuals who everyone agrees are standing in the way of resolving the agency’s issues.
    I know we’re at the peak of the silly season, and your antipathy towards Mayor Moccia has been well-established with years of partisan mud-slinging, but this one is over the top, even for you.
    Source: http://www.thehour.com/news/norwalk/neon-to-go-before-norwalk-grant-agency-review-committee-in/article_59b9b79c-cc54-5711-baf9-0b5a5c7ef890.html
    Quoting from the article:
    “Wilms said he still has questions from last year for NEON officials.
    “(Last year) we had a number of questions. The main issue was the feeling of a breach of trust with the Norwalk taxpayers, that taxpayer money was not being used in a wise manner,” Wilms said.
    Other questions, Wilms said, pertained to NEON’s board of directors, its merger with Stamford-based CTE, Inc., and its operation of Head Start.
    “(This year) we’re listening certainly with an open mind,” Wilms said, “but there are unanswered questions from last year, and I’m looking forward to hearing the answers.”
    For the fiscal year beginning July 1, NEON has requested from the city a $370,500 administrative grant, $181,450 summer camp grant and a $750,000 Head Start grant, according to the city’s Department of Finance.
    Wilms said he still has questions from last year for NEON officials.
    “(Last year) we had a number of questions. The main issue was the feeling of a breach of trust with the Norwalk taxpayers, that taxpayer money was not being used in a wise manner,” Wilms said.
    Other questions, Wilms said, pertained to NEON’s board of directors, its merger with Stamford-based CTE, Inc., and its operation of Head Start.
    “(This year) we’re listening certainly with an open mind,” Wilms said, “but there are unanswered questions from last year, and I’m looking forward to hearing the answers.”

  13. @Oldtimer,
    It is NOT the mayor’s fault this agency failed – my gad, put the blame where it is due and STOP trying to fault others.
    In ABSOLUTELY NO WAY is Moccia to take ANY responsibility for this wart in Norwalk – it is Joseph Mann and Chicquitta Stephensons 110% responsibility.
    I’m actually ticked off that people want the taxpayers money to bail them out right now – THE NERVE OF THESE PEOPLE

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