NECCA executive director steps down: Resignation threats, cancellations force resignation

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BRATTLEBORO — A few hours after a rally in support of Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, the founders of the New England Center for Arts who were fired by NECCA's board earlier this week, the executive director of the organization announced he was stepping down, effective July 28. In addition, Elizabeth Warner, the president of the board of directors, announced she was stepping down as president, though remaining on the board. Mel Martin was appointed the president of the board, effective immediately.

"The executive director [Michael Helmstadter] and President of the Board are placing the well being of the organization above their own," stated a letter addressed to Smith and Forchion, who are twin sisters. "To that end, this morning they agreed to step down from their current positions."

"With this action on the board's behalf to save NECCA, we ask that [the founders] accept the option to stay involved with NECCA per the terms outlined in a letter to you dated July 10. Due to the impact of the sudden withdrawal of students and demands for refunds over the past four days, it is important for you and the community to understand that NECCA is on the verge of closing its doors within a week."

"I have just now seen the press release from NECCA informing us of changes in the leadership team," wrote Forchion in an email to the Reformer. "I am cautiously optimistic — cautious only because I fervently hope that the board offers conversation and inclusion to the voices of the many people who have expressed their concern. It is important that this is an open door to including and welcoming the coaches team in the framing of the future of NECCA. It is vital that their voices are both heard and honored as the board seeks to move NECCA forward. I believe we still need reassurance that the community will be a part of the decision making process in the next two weeks as plans for the future are made, and I hope that the era of closed board room doors is over."

Another letter addressed to the coaches, five of whom resigned their positions and 16 who promised to go on strike at the end of Friday, the board said "It is imperative that you reach out to your supporters and friends to reverse the negative effect on the financial situation."

In the past two months, eight board members at NECCA resigned their positions. Following those resignations, the majority of the remaining board members and the replacements for those who resigned sided with the decision of NECCA's executive director "to separate from employment" the founders of the non-profit organization.

"The difficulties confronting NECCA are complex and they are challenging," wrote former board member Kate Anderson, of Brattleboro, in a statement to the Reformer, that was received prior to the resignation announcement. "Many perspectives have been expressed and they all hold their individual truths. I want to contribute this perspective, there isn't a person involved who hasn't given their best. Each has dedicated untold hours and given of their individual expertise. NECCA and its promise has evoked this love and caring in each of us."

Anderson was a board member when the board agreed to bring on Helmstadter as executive director. She told the Reformer Friday afternoon, "At the time, it was the right thing to do. " Since she resigned, said Anderson, "There are a lot of moving parts here and things have been developing."

According to her written statement, "There is a good deal of work to do. NECCA is a growing enterprise with all attendant strains and pressures, including leadership issues. We've all failed and we've all succeeded just the same as any life endeavor. Passion runs deep, loyalties become loud, and the first casualty is common purpose. Yet, that common purpose is the healing agent here, and will do its job once it's voice is heard."

Since the founding sisters were removed as NECCA's artistic directors, many of the school's coaches had resigned or indicated they would go on strike if the pair were not returned to their positions. Parents who had enrolled their children in summer camps and professionals who had enrolled in development courses were also demanding the return of the founders or a return of any money paid for the upcoming classes.

At the center of the controversy had been the leadership of Helmstadter and the vice chairwoman of the board, Tracy Prentiss, who is also Halmstadter's wife. The Reformer has contacted Halmstadter a number of times since it learned of the dismissal of Smith-Forchion and Smith, but each time, though he expressed a willingness to talk, he asked the Reformer to call back later.

Former board member Kate Law Hoflich told the Reformer that before she resigned her position on June 30 "the board was deeply divided" over the future of NECCA. And while she had no doubts as to the integrity of the founders, the group of people who have been suffering real harm over the past few months were the coaches.

"I stand with the coaches," she said. "They have legitimate grievances against the board and the executive director in the way they have been treated and disrespected."

Their grievances against leadership have been long-running, said Hoflich, and predate the termination of the founders.

"The coaches have never been disrespectful to the board in any way," she said. "They presented their grievances in a very respectful and open way with a true desire for an open and transparent conversation. They want to help the board and the executive director solve the issues at hand in a collaborative way, and I was in support of that action."

Jamie Hodgson, who resigned as the ProTrack Program director on Tuesday, told the Reformer during the rally on Friday that two years ago Bob Crego came on board as the managing director.

"When he left, he had a disagreement with the board," she said. "The board was ready to build the new facility, but it was his impression we needed to slow down to make sure everything was done right ... not stop but slow down and the twins agreed. The board disagreed."

In his resignation letter Crego wrote "While I started this job excited at the prospect of leading the organization in the future, it became apparent in a relatively short amount of time that I had neither the respect nor trust of the board leadership. Having served as CEO and CFO for several successful nonprofits, and having developed over 40 building projects, I have grown flabbergasted at the level of disregard given by board leadership to my perspectives on the business and the building project. The lines between board, consultants, donors, and staff are muddled.

"In my opinion, important," he wrote, "decisions are being made more on the basis of emotion than on a realistic assessment of the situation. I have come to this decision because, as a professional hired to ensure the viability of the organization and its building project, I do not believe that I can achieve the objectives set out in my job description."

"That was one of the things that set the stage," said Hodgson, who acknowledged that Forchion and Smith "rubbed the board in the wrong way. In any organization, that's going to happen. They are hard workers and they can be pains in the but. They micromanaged things and wanted to make sure everything was done right."

Hodgson acknowledged that some coaches had grievances with the founders, but they were minor, "compared to all of this. I think the board used it as one of the reasons to move the twins aside."

One of the bones of contention between the founders and the executive director and some members of the board was the connection between NECCA and Nimble Arts, which the founding sisters started as a for-profit business. Sources have told the Reformer there was some concern the sisters were blurring the line between the two organizations, which both Forchion and Smith deny, endangering the non-profit status of NECCA.

"The sisters made it clear to us as a board that they were aware of potential conflicts and they had a desire to work through those," said Hoflich. "I find that even leveling allegation of financial malfeasance against them is grossly inappropriate. Financial malfeasance is not the board's job to determine ... it is out of our scope of expertise. While we can identify issues that might need more investigation, and we can put best practices in place to address them and keep them from happening, any such concerns need to be turned over to the appropriate authorities, such as the IRS."

Billy Higgins, a coach at NECCA, said on Friday he heard that the board was worried that keeping the founders on was endangering a certain amount of donations yet to be collected to pay for NECCA's new facility on Putney Road. But even if that was true, he noted, the lost donations in no way came close to the amount NECCA might have lost from cancellations and demands for refunds.

"The opportunities that lie before this little-circus-school-that-could are significant and definitely beyond what a town this size might have expected," wrote Anderson in her statement to the Reformer. "That can probably be said of several arts organizations, Brattleboro Music Center, New England Youth Theater, and others. But just because there is that dedicated work, it does not mean there is an alignment of how the work should be done. We are seeing this, and the great need now is to align."

Other former and current board members did not return requests for comments.

Bob Audette and Harmony Birch can be contacted at news@reformer.com.


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