Depending on whom you ask, the recent resignation of Social Development Commission executive director Deborah Blanks signals a new direction for the state’s largest anti-poverty agency, or is the by-product of overblown media attention that sought to undermine the integrity of the agency and its CEO.
While few believe that Blanks, who headed the organization for the past 15 years, willingly resigned last week, the general consensus is that the organization will survive despite a rocky 2012 that saw SDC lose one of its largest contracts, major staffing reductions and significant revamping of several of the agency’s programs.
The agency has been under constant scrutiny by the city’s daily newspaper for the last two years following revelations that the state had found several improprieties with the management of a $32 million Wisconsin Works (welfare to work) contract. Although the mishaps were corrected, SDC decided not to submit a new proposal to continue running the program because of significant state changes to W2.
SDC was also informed last year it would have to compete for its long-standing Head Start $20 million contract. The agency serves as an umbrella for six organizations running the nationally recognized program.
Many community leaders believe the Journal Sentinel unfairly attacked SDC, and over sensationalized problems and personnel conflicts at the agency. Following the revelations about W-2 and Head Start, there were complaints from some employees that Blanks was micromanaging. Several key administrators were fired and several others resigned.
While reports of those staffing mishaps made headlines in the Journal Sentinel, they did not publicize that SDC quickly remedied the problems with the W2 program and has received federal and state accolades for several of its other contracts.
In another case, the newspaper criticized the agency for not maximizing spending on a federal program. “Think about that,” said former board member Wallace White. “We were criticized for saving money, even while maximizing output. They (Journal Sentinel) published stories that made it appear that we were dysfunctional, when that wasn’t the case. They talked about mismanagement of Head Start and W-2, but they didn’t report we received a $15 million contract extension in November that runs through June.”
White was among several people contacted who felt the Journal Sentinel was on a witch-hunt. “If you read that paper you would think the state terminated our contract and told us not to rebid. The truth is, the state changed the program in such a way that we couldn’t compete for the contract.
Under the new rules, you have to invest $5 million to operate the program before you are reimbursed. The city of Kenosha dropped out too, for the same reasons we did.”
White acknowledged that there has been conflict between the board and Blanks over the past two years, a situation that has escalated since a failed attempt to fire her following Journal Sentinel ‘articles’ last April.
In fact, board members sought White’s removal from the board for communicating with her outside of the board structure. Not by coincidence, two other strong Blank supporters came under attack by board members in recent months. Bobby Webber, board chair, resigned. Hattie Daniels Rush fought to remain on the board.
Nearly half of the board members are new, and while White was at odds with many over his support for Blanks, he doesn’t question the board’s sincerity or dedication to the agency’s mission to eradicate poverty.
“I’m not saying she was perfect, but some of the conflict was rooted in personalities and relationships, not on her leadership.”
White said Blanks ranked high on her last evaluation. “In 11 of 13 categories she met or exceeded standards. And the ones she didn’t evaluate well on related to fund raising, which of course is dictated by the economy.”
Community activist and former OIC president Tyrone Dumas said it was not unusual for there to be conflict and disagreements between non profit boards and management.
He praised Blanks for building SDC over the years of her tenure. “I don’t believe she deserved the grief they were giving her. Many of the problems cited were beyond her control. And there was a lot of misinformation being circulated.”
So, what is the future of SDC?
Acting SDC CEO Jan Stenlund and Board Chair Dr. Patricia Arredondo released a statement late Tuesday pledging to “continue the agency’s high standards in program service while a new CEO is recruited.
“Programs like Energy Assistance, GED classes, senior companion, Head Start and the free tax preparation service will still effectively serve the community during this time of transition.
“It’s not going anywhere,” White said. “It (SDC) is mandated by the state. The agency served over 80,000 people in 2011. That’s a phenomenal record. The programs and services will continue.”
If White has a concern it’s that the negative publicity of the last two years may have an adverse impact on fund raising.
“People read this stuff and some will question whether they want to invest. It’s incumbent upon the board to reshape the agency’s image.” A good starting point, he said, would be to call for a countywide anti-poverty summit.
“The way the agency is set up, the board consists of representatives of many local agencies— United Way, Interfaith Council and the Milwaukee Public Schools among them—along with city, county and state representatives. I think it would be good for all of the stakeholders to sit down and hash out a consensus direction, not just for the agency, but the community.