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Organization under fire

Westfield YWCA problems persist

January 11, 2017
By Amanda Dedie - , Westfield Republican

Program eliminations. Communication problems. Massive resignations.

It has been nine months of tumult for the YWCA of Westfield. Even community members have begun asking questions, especially to those who are no longer with the organization. There is a question of transparency regarding who the board is accountable to, who is leaving and who is left.

Most of the controversy revolved around the Early Head Start program, a would-have-been addition to the services at YWCA. It was meant to be a partnership with Chautauqua Opportunities Inc. that would allow the agency to take on children from six weeks to 3 years old.

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It has been nine months of tumult for the YWCA of Westfield. Even community members have begun asking questions, especially to those who are no longer with the organization. There is a question of transparency regarding who the board is accountable to, who is leaving and who is left.

It was a great idea, until it wasn't.

Katie Smith, former executive director for YWCA, explained the process of trying to get the ball rolling on the Early Head Start program, only for her and Brenda Backus, former child services director, to ultimately get shut down - and eliminated from the agency because of it.

"Apparently, the board approval was basically to just shut us up, because they signed the contract and then three months later, terminated my position and probably six weeks later got out of the contract," she said.

Looking at the project, though, what problems could one possibly have with it? The agency entered a contract with COI, where the project would be completely funded up to $250,000 (any more than that, and there'd be a lien put on the property).

It covered training costs of all employees, three classrooms' worth of supplies, some construction, food, formula, diapers and other items.

Smith and Backus were totally on board - how could they not be? As long as costs came in under the grant, the entire program would be paid for and even maintained so it could continue for years to come. They could start a new service with no overhead, and bring in extra income to the organization. They could even lump a different program, held in a different building YWCA paid rent on, with the Early Head Start facilities, saving the agency even more money.

So where did it all go wrong?

When the bids came in, they ended up cumulatively being more than $250,000. But that was with quotes of the absolute best of everything. When the quotes were done with lower-quality - but not terrible quality - products, they were still a bit over the mark. This led to the suggestion that the project manager be eliminated from the job, which would bring the budget well under the threshold. The architect, who said they'd be on site most days, even offered to volunteer their time to give input on the needs of the project - for free.

But the agency, for whatever reason, wasn't hearing it, and the project got the ax.

Discrimination allegations

Backus, however, believes that there's a different reason the project didn't have the support it needed - and that the money issues (that seemingly could be resolved) were just an easy out.

"It was designed specifically for people who were working who needed child care, and they then would get free child care as long as they were working," said Backus. "So there's a misconception, even in the board in the very beginning, that's part of where this discrimination suit came from, because there was a lot of discussion - are we enabling people versus empowering them?

"Because they had to meet the poverty guidelines literally statements were made like, 'Are they going to be home procreating while we're taking care of their children? Are they going to be out smoking cigarettes in the parking lot?' The concept of the people who were receiving this service was bizarre. This is what was happening in the decision making, that they were more concerned about the fact that the program was free to a certain population," she said.

Resignations pile up

In a short amount of time, the Y has seen an uptick in resignations. According to Smith, six staff members, five directors, one trustee and a finance committee member have resigned, along with Smith being let go.

The 14 total resignations listed, which Smith says have occurred since March, can perhaps look worrisome to outsiders who grow concerned with how things are going internally at the Y.

Acting Executive Director Renee Miller says the higher-than-usual turnover rate can be attributed partly to run-of-the-mill reasons, such as end of terms and people simply just deciding to move on with their lives.

"As far as the board of directors and as far as the trustees those I cannot speak to. They chose to resign. Some of them, actually, their term was up and they were not voted back on the board or decided not to be back on the board," she said. "I will say as far as the employees here, we are not the same administration that it was prior. We do have high standards that we expect our staff to work toward. I can't really give you a reason for each and every person who has decided not to be here. Some people gave a reason with their resignation, others didn't, so I couldn't say why that each and every one decided to go a different way."

A number of those interviewed for this article have attributed the resignations to those higher in the organization, the disapproval of managing methods, and a lack of concern from administration for the needs of directors and others involved in helping things run smoothly.

"I think a lot of it is people not getting the support they needed from administration, not being able to readily access someone as a board to answer their questions, a pattern of, 'If they were quick to dismiss two senior staff with longevity, what's going to happen to me?' I think a lot of that factors into it," said Smith.

"There's so many parts to the problem it's hard to really say which one came first, but I do feel confidently that it stems from the board of directors and the way they're choosing to operate things," said Michele Shields, former Advantage After School Program Coordinator and School Age Child Care director at the Y.

In Shields' resignation letter, she states reasons for her decision to leave. "I have quickly realized that there is no clear path to moving these programs forward in a positive direction as long as they are under the current board leadership for the following reasons," the letter began.

She went on to explain a number or reasons behind her leaving the Y, such as Miller admitting to not understanding many aspects of child services programs or the Advantage Grant; Miller stating her personal difficulty in seeing how childcare fits into the YWCA mission; hearing phrases relating to hiring and staff such as, "get bodies in the door" and "easily replaced," leading to the belief that child services staff are not valuable employees, and being told, after sharing concerns with Miller, "I cannot help you with that," and that raising her concerns were "creating a hostile work environment."

"For these and many other reasons, I feel there is no clear path toward a positive future for the families and staff involved in the YWCA Child Services Programs. I implore you to really examine the decisions you make as a board and the decisions your Acting ED is making on her own," the resignation letter states.

Communication issues

Perhaps the biggest issue, one that can probably be attributed as the catalyst for the other aforementioned problems, is communication - or lack thereof.

Employees have cited a lack of communication and transparency as the cause of distrust toward the Y in the community. Claims were made that when personnel in charge of child care programs resigned or dismissed, parents and others were not made aware of any staffing changes until sometimes weeks later - and even then, those updates were not made by the YWCA.

"It was weeks after my resignation and there were parents whose children were enrolled in the programs that I was running that were not aware that I had resigned," said Shields. "There were partnering agencies and school staff that work with the after school program and before school program that, two and three weeks after my resignation, did not know that I was not working there."

"What I was told by a person who worked with the program (is that) she was told that in other businesses, like a restaurant for example, 'you don't inform the customers every time an employee quits.' That was their justification. They didn't find it necessary to tell people that the program director and site supervisor had resigned," Shields said.

So the external communication, in terms of staff-to-parent, is explained as being lacking, especially in terms of who is overseeing the operations directly having to do with the children that are being cared for. However, Miller states these issues need to be brought not to the public and former employees, but to the organization itself.

"People are not coming to us and asking us these questions," she said. "The concerns that we're getting in terms of lack of communication and whatnot, nobody is calling on the phone, nobody is emailing me. I invite them to contact me. I invite them to ask questions by phone, email, whatever they would like."

Shields also states that there are questions parents can ask on-site at care centers to make sure they are well-informed of the going-ons of the facilities, such as, "Which staff are working today? What is your schedule and/or menu for today? Who is the director/site supervisor for this site? Which staff are CPR/First Aid certified and on-site now? Please show me my child's Blue Medical Card and Pick-up Statement."

Some of Shields' concerns became apparent in late December. The state Office of Children and Family Services said the School Age Child Care program was cited for failure to conduct monthly fire drills during various hours of operation. The violation has since been corrected by the agency, according to the state.

Internal communication seems to be suffering as well. From not understanding job duties, to being unsure of who to report to, to even being unable to reach the board at any give time, former employees had a lot to say about the inability to fully communicate issues and find resolutions to them.

In an "outline" of problems sent from Shields to Miller, Shields states, "There is no communication between the board of directors and the staff. Good communication could ensure that we don't schedule events on the same nights and that all Y employees take part in promoting all Y programs."

The statement implies that having a direct line, compared to the current method of communication which is a long chain of command, could increase efficiency in the workplace. Miller disagrees.

"There is not to be communication between board of directors and staff. Communication is through protocol," Miller states. "Direct communication between staff members and board members is inappropriate."

What's next?

But what good is expressing a concern if you're unsure of the solutions? According to both sides of the issue, there are a number of things that can be done to share concerns or issues and try to get a good flow of communication from both sides.

"I am talking to community members. They are asking and I am giving answers," said Miller. "I'm finding that as far as communication goes right now and how they're working on communication for daily operations, it's always a work in progress, so if it's a matter of someone claiming no communication, I do find that I have to reach out to people and ask them to communicate with me."

The board also held a Community Forum in October, and asked for the community to keep an eye out for dates of future forums. At the first one, topics discussed were building and grounds, public policy issues, advancement of the child services department, and advancement of the Y's mission.

Shields also listed a number of options, too, such as: ask questions of the staff and the administrators, and follow up with unanswered questions; vocalize complaints in writing and keep copies of responses; or join the YWCA Board of Directors.

However, she does not seem enthusiastic about the future of the Y, and thinks that the communication issues have brought the agency past the point of no return. "At this point, I think things have gotten so far gone that I'm not totally confident that we can fix this," Shields said.

The former employees would also like to note that their complaints aren't in the form of a vendetta against the Y - they simply would like to make known concerns with an organization they once had a hand in, and still truly care about and want to see thrive under the right circumstances.

"For those of us who are running the risk of being considered just disgruntled employees, and sour grapes, and can't get over ourselves, we're looking like idiots. We're not crazy people. We've got some legitimate concerns about the operation of the YWCA," Smith said.



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