This story has been significantly updated as of 1:24 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20)
NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk families who had been dependent upon the Head Start program for child care will get some help starting today (Nov. 20), as Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) re-opens its School Readiness program at the Ben Franklin Center and the Nathaniel Ely School.
The announcement was made by NEON interim CEO and President Rev. Tommie Jackson via an emailed press release.
Also, NEON Board of Directors Chairman Mike Berkoff said it is his understanding that Community Development Institute (CDI), the Colorado-based company designated by the federal Administration for Children and Families to operate Head Start on an interim basis, has been given the green light to use the Benjamin Franklin and Nathaniel Ely spaces. He said he believes CDI is putting the staff together and will be up and running soon.
NEON’s School Readiness program will be open at both locations during regular hours of operation, from 7:30 am to 5:30 p.m., according to the announcement. Six classrooms will be open at Nathaniel Ely School accommodating 119 children, while two classrooms will be open at Ben Franklin Center to provide child care services for 37 children.
Berkoff could not give a concrete answer about when day care programs for younger children might be open.
“We’re working to restore program by program as we are getting in the appropriate funds and we’re cleaning up management and the accountability of all the systems within NEON,” Berkoff told NancyOnNorwalk in a Tuesday night phone interview. “The money that we are using is (federal) money owed to NEON that was not collected. It is funds that are non-allocated – they are discretionary funds, basically money that we found that was not billed.”
Berkoff said the program will be open Wednesday through Friday and the employees will be paid on Friday.
“We have funds and people will get paid,” he said. “It has been our intention from Day 1 to make sure that all employees are made whole, that all the taxes and insurance that we withheld that weren’t paid at the appropriate time will all be paid by the first week of December.”
NEON’s contract to run the Head Start program remains under the suspension that was announced Oct. 24 after a series of contract violations involving child safety and financial matters spurred ACF to take action.
The Rev. Jackson, speaking on behalf of the agency, said in Tuesday’s statement, “NEON’s board and management deeply regret the impact that the closure of our child care programs at Ben Franklin and Nathaniel Ely school have had on hundreds of families in our community. However, steps have been taken to ensure that best practices are followed to prevent similar inconveniences in the future.
“The staff of the School Readiness program will receive salaries for this week on Friday, Nov. 22,” Jackson said, “as NEON’s new management team works to secure the funds necessary to make employees whole for past compensation due.”
NEON missed its payroll two weeks ago, and checks issued to many employees bounced. State Sen. Bob Duff and at least one local business have publicly spoken of potential criminal investigations.
State Sen. Bob Duff responded to a NancyOnNorwalk inquiry at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“I’ve been informed, late this evening, by NEON that they intend to open up School Readiness programs tomorrow morning,” Duff said. “In addition, I’ve learned that the state Office of Early Childhood as well as the state Department of Public Health will be present to monitor the program. It has been represented to me that the program will be funded by sources other than state funding.”
Berkoff said that, based on the last conversation he had with CDI, “They got their appropriate licensing and they were interviewing staff. I don’t know when they will be opening.”
Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said Tuesday night that he his hopeful Head Start is getting ready to reopen.
““We’ve been in conversations with Rev. Jackson and we’ve been in conversations with the state of Connecticut and the federal government,” Rilling said, “… and we are cautiously optimistic” that Head Start will open by the end of this week or beginning of next week.”
Questions about the operation of Norwalk Head Start should be directed to the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Public Affairs, (202) 401-9215.