NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s Head Start preschool program might be closed indefinitely starting Monday after the federal government suspended Norwalk Economic Opportunity NOW’s management of the program Thursday morning, officials said.
The federal Office of Head Start has suspended NEON’s authority to administer the federal program effective immediately, NEON said. NEON officials say the decision came with “virtually no notice” to the agency.
“We feel this inconvenience could have been avoided had federal Head Start officials worked with NEON to plan ahead for any transition to new management that had been decided,” NEON Acting CEO and President Chiquita Stephenson said in a statement Thursday evening.
In September, the federal Office of Head Start (OHS) sent NEON a letter notifying the agency of a “deficiency” in its program. A review found that NEON had lapsed in paying some of its bills.
The OHS report charges that the agency owed more than $220,000 in back payments to nine vendors, in some cases dating back to November 2012. As a result, some first aid kits were not fully stocked and the agency was not able to acquire specialty foods for kids with dietary restrictions, according to the federal report.
“The grantee’s failure to pay its vendors timely indicated its inability to effectively control the Head Start funds awarded,” OHS Director Yvette Sanchez Fuentes wrote in a letter date Sept. 11.
The letter gave NEON 30 days to pay its vendors, and 120 days to correct the health and safety problems associated with it. Stephenson said she and the board had been working with OHS to correct the situation.
The federal government has shifted control of Norwalk’s program to the Community Development Institute Head Start, which handles operations for the program in cases such as Norwalk’s. The CDIHS will review the viability of the Norwalk program’s current site and staff before reopening as soon as possible, officials said.
“A goal of CDIHS is to operate a Head Start program in the same communities in which the previous Head Start grantee operated when possible,” the CDIHS website says. “If a change in center location does occur, families will be notified with as much advance notice as possible.”
Parents and NEON supporters gathered at Norwalk’s City Hall for a demonstration Thursday evening after a meeting on the future of the program. Norwalk Police were called to the scene to keep the peace, but officers reported no problems with the crowd, according to police reports.
The demonstrators cleared the area after being told that NEON would be open Friday morning. Stephenson said the agency will notify parents as soon as possible about the status of Monday’s program.
“Our main concern is that the sudden closure of Head Start for an indefinite period of time will throw hundreds of area families into chaos, taking away child care at the last minute – which will in turn jeopardize employment for many, and the ability of families to pay rent, put food on the table and buy medicine,” Stephenson said.