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.
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