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Opinion: NEON’s finally taking action to stop the bleeding

NORWALK, Conn. – Just when you thought the only head start anyone in Norwalk would see this month would involve Christmas shopping, word has come that the federally funded Head Start program for Norwalk children may be back up and running by the first of next week.

This is good news for hundreds of Norwalk parents and children, who have been – how can we say this delicately – jerked around since the Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) program was suspended Oct. 24. It is also good news for Head Start employees, many of who have been without a paycheck since October. But no news is bad news for the families of younger children who remain without a program.

This week, NEON offered a School Readiness program Wednesday through Friday that gave some parents the day care option they needed, and some employees a paycheck they have been missing.

Still, there are plenty of tough questions to be asked and answered, and many of those might happen in a court of law.

The Norwalk check-cashing business that got stuck for $15,000 when it cashed the recent round of rubber checks issued by NEON is considering its legal options. The state Department of Labor has reportedly received more than 150 complaints by NEON employees and former employees who are owed money and may initiate a criminal probe. And there is talk among highly placed sources who asked not to be identified that they will ask for a criminal investigation into the agency that will go back several years. One of those sources cited unaccounted for and misspent fund as well as issuing bad checks and withholding union dues, insurance payments and even tax money that was never turned over to the proper agencies. Word from the NEON Board of Directors is that a lot of that could be rectified starting in the first week in December. We’ll see.

One might say, in accordance with Norwalk’s recent ordinance, the chickens (but no roosters) are coming home to roost.

Unfortunately for Board of Directors Chairman Mike Berkoff – or perhaps because of him – the fertilizer is hitting the fan on his watch. Berkoff is a highly successful and respected Stamford businessman with a string of liquor stores (BevMax) and a long resume of public service, including several years as a Stamford police commissioner. Berkoff ascended to the chairmanship almost by default – with board members heading for exits in droves, there was almost no one left willing and able to jump into the hit seat.

Berkoff stepped up the first of October and has had to deal with almost daily crises since. What seemed at the time like the worst of those came Oct. 24, when the federal Administration for Children and Families swooped in and shut down NEON’s Head Start program, affecting hundreds of Norwalk parents and children, not to mention employees.

Berkoff and former NEON interim President and CEO Chiquita Stephenson cried foul, accusing ACF of shutting things down with no notice. Documents published on this site, however, show that NEON was given plenty of notice that the program, and many others, was in jeopardy because of mismanagement and safety concerns. When NEON failed to comply with directives set forth in those documents, ACF acted.

Berkoff has said it did not have to be that way, and, in a way, he’s right. As the situation was reaching its crescendo, ACF and state Department of Social Services official could have come to town and worked out a deal to install an overseer on NEON’s staff, someone to distribute Head Start funds and keep a strict handle on how and where they were spent. This could have been done to keep the program running while NEON and ACF and DSS worked out a plan to get the agency back on track.

The cost to the taxpayers and the disruption to people’s lives might have been much less. As it was, the federal government was spending big money shuttling people in and out of Norwalk, putting them up in hotels and feeding them as the program was shut down and negotiations with an interim Head Start agency took place. Families would not have been left without day care; employees would have been kept on staff and actually paid in in checks that stay down when they are dropped on the floor.

Of course, this would have required making some changes in upper management a few weeks sooner, like putting Stephenson on unpaid leave and bringing in the Rev. Tommie Jackson to preside over NEON’s remake. For reasons many on the outside cannot fathom, the NEON board – those who remained from the “new” board installed last May – stood firmly behind Stephenson even when not only the wheels, but the entire undercarriage, were coming off the cart. Since Jackson took over, he has begun making the tough decisions that must be made to stop the bleeding – program shutdowns, layoffs, and rectifying years of financial chaos.

It will be a while before NEON manages to restore confidence in funders – not to mention check-cashing services. There may be more missteps, and there almost certainly will be the spectacle of legal inquiries that will, undoubtedly, drag on for years. But maybe, just maybe, if the current team – with some notable changes still to be made in management positions – can avoid stepping in the goo, a social service agency that is sorely needed to help Norwalk’s most disadvantaged residents – and those in those in other communities as well – will be able to once again do what it was created to do.

 

Comments

17 responses to “Opinion: NEON’s finally taking action to stop the bleeding”

  1. TheNorwalker

    NEON Board and Senior Management including the latest members have let several (maybe all) State Funded Programs slip through their fingers while focusing on saving the Headstart Program at NEON.

    Headstart showed what concern they have for Norwalk and the regional workforce when they contracted with a out of state Organization to run Norwalk’s Headstart Program.

    Now Norwalk is left with no local hub for most or all of the State Social, Criminal and Mental Health Services and a out of state Organization running our Headstart Program.

    There is no blood left in NEON to continue the bleeding!

  2. LR

    Hope somehow Neon can restore the 21 teachers and 56 children who are in the Toddler Program.

  3. M Allen

    Well-written piece Mark. Can’t say much more than that because I think you actually summed it up pretty well. Damn you for not leaving me a hole. 😉

  4. WHAT?

    Mark, Berkoff ‘stepped up’ as chairman after other board members left the board in droves specifically because Berkoff was part of the contingent that was willing to accept Chiquita Stephenson’s explanation that there were really no problems with NEON and that the letters NEON kept getting from DSS and ACF were actually — according to Stephenson – “lies” and part of a vendetta that DSS and ACF had against NEON. The fact that NEON’s interim CEO would offer this as an explanation and — more appalling — that a group on the board accepted this was profoundly insulting to the intelligence of the group that then had no choice but to leave. So, ‘stepping up’ is really more like sleeping the bed he made. Similarly, there was no way — as you suggest — for DSS and ACF to have someone come in and oversee things when the board was backing a CEO that kept saying DSS was lying and there was really no problem. Berkoff came in for one reason only: to help his buddy Jack O’Dea, who backed Chiquita’s ridiculousness to the ends of the earth for reasons that remain unknown, but which someone with subpoena power should find out.

  5. dawn

    i do wonder how mr. berkoff managed to be so successful in business if he ran that the way he ran the NEON board

  6. WHAT?

    dawn, you have to know the relationships. The fact that Berkoff knows how to take care of his own money is totally aside from how he got tangled up with NEON. The most powerful board member through all of this has been Jack O’Dea. He and Chiquita are both from Stamford and have known each other for over 10 years. Through all of this, O’Dea and Chiquita were inseparable and he was involved in of all her strategies, they were joined at the hip. O’Dea brought Berkoff on as support because he is very politically connected and a longtime friend of O’Dea’s. They are all from Stamford. Did you notice in the NON article the other day about the 90 minute conference call with Rilling, Duff, et al., there is Berkoff on the call and O’Dea — no other board members. Often, the supposed statements issued by berkoff are in fact all written by O’Dea. Berkoff isn’t ‘running’ NEON, he is ‘stuck’ with NEON after making a poor chase of favors to do for O’Dea. Berkoff isn’t trying to do with NEON what he does with his own business.

  7. The Norwalker

    Take a look at the other Community Action Agencies in Connecticut:

    http://www.cafca.org/our-network

    The NEON that we have now is a joke, a empty shell. What remains are some Administrative Positions and some school support programs.

    If NEON has burnt all bridges with State Agencies like DSS, DMHAS and DOC, then the first priority for Norwalk and Stamford should be to look for local Organizations that could run these programs for the communities.

  8. Joe Norwalk

    NEON can go out and hire great management, start making good decisions and offering programs again, but the harsh reality is that they are $3.6 Million in debt! How is this going to be paid off? Do they think that their creditors are just going to forgive and forget what they owe? Stop wasting time and just file for bankruptcy already – it is inevitable anyway. We need other organizations to step in and take over their programs such as the NCC/Stepping Stones bid to take over Head Start. SonoCC is prepared to take over other programs. I support both these organizations with donations but I’m not going to give money to NEON so they can pay off their big pile of debt that was probably spent on corrupt and possibly illegal purposes and I seriously doubt anyone else is either.

  9. The Norwalker

    Hi Joe

    This Organization has been in Norwalk for years quietly helping community agencies.

    http://www.hscct.org/

  10. The Norwalker

    Also aside from Mr. Jackson who else is currently managing NEON? Do they still have the same Financial Officer Ms. Watson-Yates?

  11. SoNoCC

    @Joe Norwalk:

    Thank you for your vote of confidence. SoNoCC has made it clear to NEON that we stand READY, WILLING and ABLE to step in to protect necessary and essential Programs, for the benefit of Norwalk’s ENTIRE community. We ask that government officials join us in sitting down at the table, and let’s roll up our sleeves and get this done!

  12. The Norwalker

    @SoNoCC

    With what little that is on your Facebook Page it is hard to tell what you would have to offer to all of the different kinds of people (culturally, various issues and problems, and various ages)that were served by NEON.

  13. SoNoCC

    @The Norwalker:
    As previously mentioned on NoN, SoNoCC is having its website developed in cooperation with Fairfield University, through the recommendation of Fairfield County Community Foundation. Since taking over the executive management of SoNoCC in June, our team has been doing everything possible to restore the good name of South Norwalk Community Center and to develop programing in cooperation with the area’s finest educational institutions. Our renovation project has been initiated and our strategic partnerships are being confirmed. Rather than take up space here, if you sincerely interested in learning more about our plans, we would be happy to meet with you individually to show you our plans and discuss how individuals, like yourself, may help us in the process. Several individuals have already accepted our invitation and have agreed to volunteer. If interested, please email Pat Ferrandino, our Deputy Director, at [email protected]

  14. tired of negative b.s.

    Does anyone realize NEON @ Ben Franklin School, has a Social Worker with an MSW who refers residents for services on a daily basis!

  15. M Allen

    @ b.s. – And your point is what?

  16. The Norwalker

    I think that we should remember that there still are NEON Senior Management (including the CFO) who were part of the activities that caused the destruction of NEON employed at NEON, some still making those insane salaries they were given.

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