LAURINBURG — As the new executive director of Four-County Community Services, Ericka Jones Whitaker is looking forward to the day that she can say the organization has completed a 180-degree turn from its record of fiscal mismanagement, nepotism and bad press — and she knows that could be months, even years.
But after a little more than a month on the job, Whitaker is optimistic that her staff and executive board are receptive to a turnaround.
“We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can certainly be sure to the best of our ability that we make changes for the future,” she said during an interview last month at Four-County’s Laurinburg headquarters. “Just give the new leadership an opportunity and understand that it’s going to take time … it’s going to be a process.”
Whitaker took her post on Jan. 20 as helm of the organization, which distributes some $21 million annually through state and federal grants to operate 16 Head Start programs and administer housing assistance programs in Scotland, Robeson, Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Hoke and Pender counties. Her first day came months after the firing of longtime executive director Richard Greene following an audit by the state Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start funds, that discovered inappropriate bidding and hiring practices within the organization.
On Feb. 6, as Whitaker was attending a Head Start conference, state auditors released a report detailing misuse of $4.8 million of taxpayer dollars under Greene’s leadership, spent on items such as employee bonuses, gym memberships, luxury vehicles and expensive electronics.
In a written response to the audit, Whitaker and board chairman Jason King noted their agreement with the state’s findings and promised to be in compliance with auditors’ suggestions, most of which emphasized the need for the keeping of proper records and potential reimbursement of mismanaged funds to granters including the state and federal human services departments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Whitaker has been in contact with the outside agencies, she says, but most of her concern lies with the organization’s internal workings.
“Once I got into the door, I was able to assess not just where the weaknesses are but the strengths, too,” she said. “I’ve been able to see where this organization needs to be strengthened and that has a lot to do with the restructuring of the internal infrastructure, because if you don’t strengthen that, there’s no way that the external infrastructure is going to be successful.”
Following the release of the Feb. 6 audit, State Auditor Beth Wood questioned whether a turnaround could be made if the staff who operated under Greene remained working at the organization. Poor fiscal practices, Wood said, might be so ingrained that staff may not know the difference between the right and wrong way to manage state and federal funds. While Whitaker disagrees with that notion, her changes are all designed to, at least until the end of this fiscal year, keep much of the organization’s decision-making power in the hands of herself and the board of directors.
Kim Clark — who operated as deputy director under Greene, as interim director after Greene’s departure, and who would have served as the permanent director had the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services approved her appointment — has been demoted by the board of directors from deputy director to a program manager. The state audit found that a construction company contracted by Four-County had employed two of Clark’s sons and that Four-County had improperly awarded a cleaning contract to Clark’s mother, who did not clean the building.
Clark’s demotion, including a salary cut from $89,000 to about $70,000, was made on Whitaker’s recommendation and was effective immediately.
“What that simply means is that many of the responsibilities that deal with executive management, she will no longer be doing as it relates to signing off on any type of contracts, bids, soliciting for bids for any type, signing of checks, any of that which falls second in line to the executive director,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker and the board will in the new fiscal year assess if a deputy director is needed, but that position will remain vacant for now.
Board meetings have been moved from bi-monthly to every month. Staff members must submit directly to Whitaker weekly written reports of the activities within their respective departments. Program directors are attending refresher courses on grant management and record keeping, and board members are being updated on the trends of nonprofits and grant management, as well as the importance of routine evaluations of staff and of Whitaker.
“Right now, I want to make sure that I’m knowledgeable and I’m aware of everything that is going on in the organization. Is that possible, to know every single thing? Well, probably not, but I’m going to do my best and my team — the executive staff and all the staff — knows the seriousness of making sure from the day that I took leadership, from the day that I took this position moving forward, that they are held accountable as well and that they are keeping me in the loop with what’s going on with their respective areas,” Whitaker said.
“We’re going to make sure that every board member, if they are to continue being a board member, that they are a functioning, working board member that’s working towards making a positive change in this organization.”
The board has also hired public relations consultant Jill Morris and tasked her with bringing the organization’s activities to light through social media and increased interaction with the press. Morris’ conditional employment of one month was extended by the board to five months at its February meeting. Morris holds a master’s in nonprofit management and, before starting Morris Public Relations, worked as a program administrator for Head Start at the federal level — which she suspects is the primary reason for her recruitment.
“I look forward to hearing more success stories coming from this organization, because there are lot of success stories but I just think they haven’t been put out there in the public,” Whitaker said. “I look forward to just us being more savvy, with social media and those types of things, revising our website so we can get the good messages out there. We have to be accountable to the community, and they have to know what it is that we’re doing.”
But, Whitaker knows that the agency will be under constant scrutiny — not just from the public, but from granting agencies as well. So why take on a struggling organization that will long remain under a microscope?
“This was an opportunity to help an organization, or to help save an organization,” she said. “To help continue the services that this program is offering. The first thing I would say, is why not?
“You can understand policy and federal programs all day long, but if you don’t know how to run or manage an organization then you won’t be successful. My experience is indicative of what this organization needed. They needed someone to come in and assist them with the internal infrastructure and just to assess where it is and determine where it needs to improve. That’s what I’m doing.”
Whitaker is a doctoral candidate at Fayetteville State University. She most recently worked as an instructor at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and has also served as the director of the Robeson Community College Foundation. She has served on the Pembroke and Lumberton chambers of commerce; the Sister’s Network Inc. of Southeastern NC; the state ABC Board; and the board of directors for the Exploration Station in Lumberton.
Whitaker moved to the area after spending about 14 years in Washington, D.C., where she held management positions with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the National Council on Patient Information and Education before serving for two years as the administrative director of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“I wanted to be in an area where I really could make a difference,” Whitaker said. “In an area like Washington D.C., everybody is making a difference. Everybody is in power, everyone holds a position. But I knew I could bring the strengths that I have and I accumulated in D.C. to this area to make a difference, and I think most people would see that I’ve been able to do that in every entity that I’ve been involved in and Four-County is no different.
“Everything rises and falls with leadership. If I’m coming in and saying it’s my intent to strengthen this organization and take them to a new pinnacle, to a new level, I truly believe that the employees will follow. It’s a two-way street.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.