Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity

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The Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) was a non-profit Community Action Agency (CAA) which administrated federal grant-funded programs in Jefferson County from 1965 to 2021.

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was drafted by Sargent Shriver and presented to Congress as a keystone of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" agenda. It was passed that August. As designed, the law established a network of local committees which included residents of impoverished neighborhoods rather than relying on existing local governments to distribute funding.

The Birmingham Area Committee for Development of Economic Opportunity was incorporated on January 21, 1965. Before it began administering programs in December of that year, it had already expanded its scope as part of an agreement between the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County.

A priority of the new organization was the establishment of "Neighborhood Service Centers" with their own Neighborhood Advisory Councils. In addition to its direct impact, the JCCEO's participatory structure provided opportunities for disadvantaged residents to develop leadership and administrative skills within the organization.

Some of the aims of the original legislation were undercut by later amendments which added more local officials and business owners to CAA boards. Many more funding cuts and legislative changes came during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

In the 1990s the JCCEO moved its headquarters offices into the former Graymont Elementary School at 300 8th Avenue West, which it shared with the Arrington Head Start Center.

In its final year the agency's budget had grown to around $37 million, of which 90% was dedicated to managing Head Start programs, and the remainder going toward utility and rental assistance, and home weatherization campaigns. In 2018 the JCCEO employed nearly 500 people. That number was reduced due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Head Start forced the Committee to relinquish its Head Start grant in November 2021 another 258 employees were laid off, leaving only a small financial staff in place before the organization was shuttered later that year.

Executive directors

Facilities

Head Start Centers

Adult Day Care

Senior Nutrition Centers

Other facilities

Controversies

In 2006 former Jefferson County Commission member Jeff Germany was convicted of directing nearly $500,000 to allies through the JCCEO, much of which was returned to him and his son in the form of kickbacks.

In 2014 former executive director Gayle Cunningham and her daughter, Kelli Caulfield pleaded guilty in federal court of stealing nearly $500,000 in funds intended for distribution through the JCCEO.

Sharon Myles was named director in November 2019. In March 2020 she fired chief financial officer Richard Wells and contracted with Ann Massa of Mississippi Early LLC to provide financial oversight services. Myles appointed Jacqueline Hill to take over as CFO in November of that year, but fired her in February 2021 and resumed contracting with Massa.

A tip from a whistleblower led the board to open an investigation into JCCEO's finances. Board attorney Thomas Scroggins hired accountants Shepard-Harris & Associates to collect and review documents. They found that Massa, listed as "key personnel", had been paid more than $79,800 between August 19 and September 24, 2021. On November 1, 2021 the board fired Myles, Massa and four other contract employees, one of whom, Tommy Nsuk, is believed to have been in a personal relationship with Myles.

Chief Human Resources Officer Brenda Singellos was appointed to serve as interim director. Other contracts which were questioned by the board included renting space from Greater Grace Church in Center Point for $10,000 per month and paying its pastor, Lawrence Jackson, another $5,000 a month to work as a behavioral consultant. The investigation found that no pupils had been assigned to that center, and that Jackson had not performed any work.

Meanwhile, former board president T. L. Lewis wrote to the Head Start regional office in Atlanta, Georgia to say that Myles had been wrongfully terminated and that 10 members of the JCCEO board needed to be replaced. The dissension led Head Start officials to notify JCCEO that it would have to voluntarily relinquish its role in managing its federally-funded programs, with the next opportunity to re-apply coming no sooner than 2026. Board chair Gary Richardson asked the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County to provide $3 million to keep the agency operating, but both demurred, citing concerns about mismanagement.

On Wednesday November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, the JCCEO notified all 258 employees that they would be laid off. On Monday November 29 Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs director Kenneth Boswell formally requested that the Committee surrender all state and federal grant funds as it coordinated the replacement of its programs. The JCCEO's board voted on December 1 to comply with the request, and also empowered Richardson to refer its internal investigations to the Alabama Ethics Commission and the Attorney General of Alabama.

JCCEO's Head Start programs resumed under the management of Community Development Initiatives of Montgomery, and many former employees were rehired, but with significantly reduced wages. A class action lawsuit was filed by Veronica Kemp on behalf of the 258 employees terminated.

References

  • Faulk, Kent (March 26, 2014) "Former JCCEO executive director Gayle Cunningham sentenced to 2 years in prison for $500,000 theft from agency." The Birmingham News
  • Rebman, Stephanie (November 15, 2019) "JCCEO names new executive director." Birmingham Business Journal
  • Johnson, Roy S. (November 1, 2021) "Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity fires executive director, 5 others." The Birmingham News
  • Johnson, Roy S. (November 22, 2021) "With $2 million deficit, layoffs imminent at Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity." The Birmingham News
  • Johnson, Roy S. (November 22, 2021) "Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity ‘dead’ without $3 million from city, county: board chair." The Birmingham News
  • Johnson, Roy S. (November 26, 2021) "JCCEO executive’s firing followed financial inconsistences, alleged relationship with contractor." The Birmingham News
  • "Turmoil hits antipoverty group as report questions contracts." (November 29, 2021) Associated Press / WBHM.org
  • Dionne, Brittany (November 29, 2021) "Center Point pastor defends receiving thousands of dollars from JCCEO after being accused of not fulfilling the contract." WBRC.com
  • Johnson, Roy S. (November 29, 2021) "Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity board slashed, new CFO hired." The Birmingham News
  • Collins, Alan (November 30, 2021) "JCCEO Board Chairman: The agency will be going out of business." WBRC.com
  • Johnson, Roy S. (December 1, 2021) "As JCCEO heaves its final breath, harvest its heart, start the autopsy." The Birmingham News
  • Tryens-Fernandes, Savannah (December 15, 2021) "Two JCCEO Head Start centers reopen, but former employees are still unpaid." The Birmingham News
  • Tryens-Fernandes, Savannah (December 15, 2021) "Former Alabama Head Start employee sues over layoff at JCCEO." The Birmingham News

External links