NORWALK, Conn. – South Norwalk’s embattled anti-poverty agency is holding onto its childcare programs and services through the week in the face of a takeover attempt by the federal government.
Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) announced Monday that it will continue to operate childcare programs and services through the week under a normal schedule “as NEON completes its due diligence to find a solution for the transition of Norwalk’s Head Start program during the agency’s federal 30-day summary suspension from administering Norwalk’s Head Start program.”
This is after Administration for Children and Families (ACF) suspended NEON’s Head Start program Thursday, assigning Community Development Institute, an interim Head Start agency, to take over for at least 30 days. ACF cited financial mismanagement and inappropriate decisions as it prohibited NEON from making any new expenditures or incurring any new obligations with federal Head Start funds in connection with its direct operation of Head Start services.
That left Head Start parents in a bind, with no Head Start planned for Friday as CDI was not prepared to take over immediately. NEON officials have found temporary funding elsewhere.
“NEON’s focus at this time are Norwalk’s children and families that we serve,” NEON board chairman Michael Berkoff said in a statement. “We feel they should not have to pay for the poor planning on the part of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and the City of Norwalk. NEON’s board of directors and staff are seeking private sponsorship to assist with keeping our children in the classroom and our working families employed.”
Mayor Richard Moccia has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday morning to discuss the issue. CDI Head Start’s voice mail still announces that CDI will serve as interim manager for the program, the same message that was posted Sunday night.
Former NEON interim CEO and president Pat Wilson Pheanious has not responded to a phone call. Interim CEO and president Chiquita Stephenson has not responded to emails and has not answered phone calls.
Three parents who were picking up their children Monday afternoon at the Ben Franklin Center reported that they are happy with the services NEON is continuing to provide, though one said management has not been honest.
“I hope the government, or mayor, or anybody who takes over the city of Norwalk can help with this,” said Vanessa Cortes. “Because I believe Mr. Moccia hasn’t been supportive to NEON. Hopefully, whoever replaces him gets some help, money to help NEON, because this is very important. Without NEON I don’t know what I would do.”
Cortes said her 3-year-old son, Julian Perez, has learned to recognize letters and numbers at Head Start, but her main concern was that daycare costs as much as she makes during a week. She would have to send him to Colombia to live with her mother if not for Head Start.
Another mother said the uncertainty of the situation is unreasonable.
“Basically I’m playing it by ear day by day if there’s going to be childcare or not. Nobody’s telling me anything, it’s just little bits and pieces from hearsay,” said the mother of a 2½-year-old daughter after requesting anonymity.
The mother is also getting job training with NEON. The instructor of the computer classes she is taking has resigned because he doesn’t know if he’ll get paid, she said. She didn’t know if a replacement teacher would be found to continue the class.
“I just feel they’re not really being honest with the parents,” she said. “I feel some of the stuff that is going on I’m not really happy with, but I’m thankful my daughter is here momentarily. I feel like if they know something they should be honest with the parents. I feel they’re hiding a lot of stuff.”
Luis Soares said she is happy with the childcare.
“I understand that he is learning and he is improving himself in his speech, in his writing and his reading,” she said of her son. “Even though he is 4 years old, he now knows how to write his name. I am very happy with that and I feel safe.”
But “the last couple of months has been not so reliable,” she said, referring to the two-day closure when NEON could not meet its payroll. NEON did not send her a message Sunday about whether or not the daycare would be open, but she knew because she talks to a lot of mothers and the teacher, she said.
She has been to NEON meetings for Head Start parents.
“It was kind of confusing by now because (Stephenson) says she is waiting for the loan from the government of Norwalk,” she said. “The mayor looks like this is not going to happen.”
Soares has lived in Norwalk for 10 years but cannot vote because she is not a citizen. She had planned to pursue that route but no longer has the money.
“I think the school is going to survive because it’s a lot of families that need it,” she said. “A lot of working families, low income families, that we need this space. If we go to another daycare we may not be able to pay the rent and the daycare.”