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SCRAA restores pay, but feathers are still ruffled

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — The Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency may have backed out of a 10 percent pay cut it enforced in January, but employees say it will take more for them to trust the non-profit again.

The cuts were voted on in December 2016 to make up for a $1.3 million deficit Board Chair Dr. Donna White-Cook said accrued over several years. Employees were informed of the decision at a January meeting. Shara Streater-Dearmon, center director of the East Spencer Head Start, and other Head Start employees in the five-county area the agency serves said they had no opportunity to provide input.

After the following outcry, the agency retracted the cuts, reinstating pay by the end of February. But Streater-Dearmon said employees didn’t receive prior notice of that decision, either — instead finding out when one teacher looked at a paystub.

“They took it without telling us, and they gave it back without telling us,” she said.

She, and other employees are “still in a state of shock” and fear that it could happen again.

“There’s so much uncertainty,” she said.

A Post reporter learned that pay had been returned on Feb. 23, and reached out to White-Cook for a comment. White-Cook confirmed that the cuts were no longer in effect, but gave no further information and asked that the Post contact Pete Kennedy, interim director of the action agency, for a statement. Over the following weeks, the Post made multiple attempts to contact and secure a comment from Kennedy, and was eventually told to contact White-Cook for all comments. Kennedy told a reporter it was his understanding that White-Cook had already given her statement to the Post.

According to a previous interview with White-Cook, the deficit is the result of unbudgeted repairs or changes required by federal programs to keep compliance. Specific examples given included damaged furniture and replacing playground wood-chips with more suitable material.

A request for a list of expenditures and invoices was denied.

An examination of monitoring reports by the federal Head Start office revealed that, between 2012 and 2016, the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency was required to make several corrections, including laying tile flooring in some classrooms, replacing furniture and repairing walls. Replacement of playground covering was requested in June 2012, and was completed by February 2013, in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Playground coverings were replaced at Candor, Montgomery, Southern Pines, Stanly, Norwood, Aberdeen and Westside locations. Exact costs of these corrections were not available.

According to meeting minutes, the board was informed of the deficit in October 2016. At a Dec. 7 called meeting, the agency was given an ultimatum by its auditor: correct the deficit by Oct. 31, 2017, or risk losing funding.

But employees are wondering why the board seemingly wasn’t aware of the dire nature of the situation until then, if it began — as stated by White-Cook — in the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“How could it have gotten so bad?” Streater-Dearmon wondered.

“I think there’s not a lot of transparency,” Jalica Stewart, center director of the Wiley Lash Head Start in Salisbury, said.

And while the pay cut only lasted a month, it hit Head Start employees hard — many of whom are single parents or who are in the process of getting degrees.

Stewart said in an earlier interview that in the month the pay cut was in effect, she lost two teachers with no notice. It leaves her center severely understaffed, and unable to meet Head Start requirements.

“We should be able to retain staff, but we’re not now,” she said.

Kimberly Weaks, center director of the West 22nd Street Head Start in Kannapolis, said that after word got out about the cuts, private daycare centers began actively recruiting Head Start employees. Weaks said her staff was dedicated to staying through the end of the school year, but she wasn’t sure what would happen over summer.

Stewart said she and those who remained are determined not to let shortfalls impact the children they serve. In a center that is often forced to rotate teachers between rooms, Stewart said she’s been spending more time in the classrooms — providing children with a familiar face and consistency.

And while employees no longer have to worry about pay, they still want answers.

“Now I want to know what happened,” Streater-Dearmon said.

At its Feb. 16 meeting, the board discussed ways it could improve cost savings, which included finding new vendors for certain projects. The board estimated it could save roughly $700,000 per year with some simple changes. It did not approve the cost savings list at the Feb. 16 meeting, and when a Post reporter asked Kennedy for a copy of the measures and the exact amounts, the request was denied, and Kennedy said that issue should have been discussed in closed session.

Stewart said she would like to see an increase in open, honest communication between the agency and its employees.

Weaks said she’d like to see some restructuring at the command and administrative levels of the agency. She’d also like to see the agency contract with local janitorial services, and to repair its relationships within local communities.

“We need to cut back, we need to get back to the basics,” she said.

And with the deficit still remaining, Streater-Dearmon has one big question:

“How are you going to stop this from happening again?” She wondered.

She, and other employees, want to know what the plan of action is going forward — and they want to be involved in it. And while they’re frustrated, they’re still dedicated.

“We choose to stay here because we love the families and we know this is the area of the most need,” Streater-Dearmon said.

Weaks said she came to Head Start for a reason.

“I was looking for something that would give me the chance to do what I love and I believe to be needed,” she said.

She hopes that the agency will find a way to return to the roots of its mission statement — to enhance the quality of life for students and families and to promote opportunities for self-sufficiency.

“I believe that they’re going to find a way back to that,” she said, “…But I’d like to see some change, and I’d like to see some change real soon.”

Contact Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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