A Stamford pastor trying to help save an embattled Norwalk anti-poverty agency was close to tears Tuesday morning as he announced that 275 Norwalk children will once again be educated under the Head Start program, six weeks after the local program was suspended by the federal government.
The Rev. Tommie Jackson, who volunteered to take over the leadership post at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now in a "transitional" role, was on hand for a press conference announcing the reopening of Norwalk's Head Start program, although NEON is no longer running the program.
Jackson appeared with a group of local politicians and said that Community Development Institute, the agency appointed by the federal Administration for Children and Families to take over NEON's Head Start program, would reopen Head Start Wednesday, after issues at the federal level were worked out.
State Rep. Bruce Morris, D-Norwalk, said Jackson "jumped into a vat of fire" when he volunteered to help NEON days after employee paychecks bounced Nov. 5.
NEON was "in shambles" at the time, state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said.
What state is NEON in now?
Jackson, pastor of Faith Tabernacle Baptist Church in Stamford, used the boxing terms TKO, meaning technical knockout, or KO, meaning the knockout suffered from a crushing blow, to describe the agency's circumstances.
"It's breathing, we are not on our backs anymore, but we are on our knees," Jackson said. "So we have moved from landing on our back to our knees. A month ago, people would have said it's a TKO, or maybe just a KO. Today, we can say we are still in the fight. We are strengthening the organization. A month ago the organization had less than $10,000 in its accounts. People were not getting paid."
He began to break up, but fought back the tears.
"It's kind of emotional for me," Jackson said. "Now people are getting paid for three weeks and we have almost $300,000 in the operating account. So I am grateful. It is a lot of work, but it is necessary work for the community and I am willing to do it."
NEON's Head Start program was suspended for at least 30 days Oct. 24. It remained closed, which then-interim NEON CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson said was caused by licensing issues. CDI wanted to use NEON's space in the Ben Franklin Center and at Nathaniel Ely School, but NEON had other programs going on in the city-owned facilities. That was resolved Nov. 12, Jackson said, but Head Start remained closed. On Nov. 20, NEON reopened its School Readiness program to help Head Start parents.
On Nov. 23, three Head Start families went to NEON looking for answers.
"My daughter has to learn because she has to go into kindergarten next year," one of the parents, Andrea Lopez, said.
Mayor Harry Rilling, who took office Nov. 19, was among the politicians talking to the press about Head Start on Tuesday.
"This is not something that happened overnight," Rilling said. "This took many, many conference calls, many discussions, many ideas tossed back and forth and finally, finally, they sat up and they listened to government officials saying you need to get this moving."
The problem, officials said, rested between CDI and ACF.
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., was credited with helping to work out the differences.
"One of the problems that was associated (with the delay) was not related to anyone in Connecticut at all," Jackson said. "It was related to CDI and (Health and Human Services), who noted that they were waiting for one another to get together and do things."
Jackson said the issues were related to the $2.6 million in funding that NEON had been denied from Norwalk for more than two years under the administration of former Mayor Richard Moccia. NEON was funded to provide for only 160 children in Head Start without the Norwalk contribution, but continued to care for and educate 275 children, creating "an administration and fiscal nightmare," he said. Local politicians have convinced HHS to allocate enough money to CDI to continue looking after and educating all 275 kids through June, he said.
Another issue was the amount of time the children are in school. The federal government provides for six hours per day of Head Start education, but NEON had been providing eight hours. ACF spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in a Tuesday email that CDI will provide six hours a day this week and eight hours beginning Monday.
About 80 percent of the Head Start teachers employed by NEON will be rehired by CDI, Jackson said. The teachers were in an orientation program with CDI as the politicians spoke Tuesday.
NEON's accomplishments under Jackson's brief leadership include the repayment of $15,000 to Cash-A-Check in South Norwalk, a business that cashed paychecks for 18 NEON employees, only to see the checks returned for insufficient funds.
The agency last week dismissed Stephenson and Mary Mann, recently listed as chief program officer. Both women were working in administration at NEON under former CEO and President Joe Mann when a federal audit showed that $400,000 in Head Start funding had been misspent.
Last week, NEON employees, many of whom had been terminated, went to NEON headquarters in South Norwalk to get their delayed paychecks. Some left happy, but many said more money was owed -- those who no longer have jobs said they are due vacation pay and other back pay.
Jackson has promised to make NEON employees "whole" by Dec. 20. NEON may reapply to operate Head Start, he said, and is looking to get its energy assistance program going.
"It's getting cold. People need heat for their homes," he said. "We are providing the services to qualified people, but the administrative provider, the payer, is coming out of Bridgeport ABCD. We look to get that back into the agency, and some other programs."
Himes was not at Tuesday's news conference, but released a statement Tuesday afternoon.
"I am extremely pleased that Head Start services in Norwalk will resume (Wednesday), providing much-needed relief to the hundreds of Norwalk families that rely on its services to educate young children and ensure parents have the reliable childcare necessary to hold a steady job," he said. "Having joined local leaders in urging the federal government to do everything possible to end the weeks-long delay in services that withheld vital early education to at-risk children and disrupted the lives of working families, I commend the actions taken since to restore crucial Head Start programs in Norwalk."