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"I didn't want this job, to tell you the truth," Smith says. "It was the staff and the board and the community that kept after me to apply for this job. My pastor called me over and said, "I'm tired of all these people coming to me. I want you to put your résumé in and forget it.'"
As executive director, Smith oversees an anti-poverty agency that takes in $16 million a year -- more than 70 percent of it coming from the Head Start program. She oversees a staff of 450 full- and part-time workers. In addition to Head Start, the agency manages temporary food- and energy-assistance programs; an employment program; and the federal WIC program, a supplemental food program for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children up to age 5. Formed in 1964 as the St. Louis area's first community-action agency, HDC gets more than 95 percent of its money from taxpayer dollars.
In 1991, three years before Smith took over from Antoine, HDC gave up management of the Head Start program in St. Louis County, at least partly in response to allegations of mismanagement. And in 1992, the state of Missouri assumed control of a $1 million weatherization program run by HDC after an audit found repeated instances of HDC's paying bills for work that had not actually been performed. Antoine's retirement came in 1994, the same year it was learned that he had paid his own private company to do some work for HDC.
Smith says she inherited a host of problems that existed under her predecessor, and in some ways she measures herself by him. She says nepotism was rampant under Antoine (who did not respond to attempts to reach him for this story).
"If they had come in and checked when he was here, they'd find his granddaughter and all kinds of Antoines were on the payroll," Smith says. "I've never had any of my relatives -- I take that back; I had a sister-in-law years ago work here on a temporary basis because she was qualified -- but I didn't supervise her." She says she earns less than Antoine did -- and she took a 10 percent pay cut last summer to help fix the deficit problem. Smith notes that she drives a 6-year-old car, whereas Antoine got a new one every two years.
When she took over in 1994, Smith says, she was determined to clean up the agency after seeing things during her tenure that "were not what I call proper." But her own attempts to bring about change, including cracking down on lazy employees who didn't put in a full day's work, she says, has created a host of new problems she did not anticipate. She says she is under attack from disgruntled former and current employees who have "sabotaged" the Head Start program.
"I know I have tried to clean up this agency," Smith says. "That is why I'm having all this opposition -- because I have stepped on people's toes."
Smith blames state Rep. Charles Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis) for bringing on the investigations after she fired a longtime employee who turned to Troupe for help. She blames the Policy Council, a group made up mostly of Head Start parents that must approve all hirings and firings in the program. She blames friends of a former Head Start worker who was unhappy when she didn't get a promotion to Head Start director.
She says one of her first moves when she stepped into the top job was to implement a drug-free workplace, because many employees were not putting in a full "seven-and-a-half hours" and many of them, she says, "were alcoholics." The first week the drug-free policy was implemented, Smith says, 34 employees quit, from the top ranks to the bottom rungs, from finance to janitorial. "We lost a lot of bus drivers," Smith says. "We lost individuals from all areas, and that really strained the agency."
Smith says she tried to crack down on individuals who didn't put in a full day's work -- with mixed results. In March 1997, she fired a 28-year HDC employee, Helen French, after her supervisor, who was also Smith's assistant, complained she was having to do French's work when French did not come into the office. At the time, French headed the purchasing department. French then sought the help of Troupe, who sent a letter to HDC urging that she be given her job back. Smith says Troupe warned her that if French didn't get her job back: "Your agency will go through an investigation that is out of this world."
French later sued HDC; the case is pending. Documents in the case, however, indicate she received positive reviews as recently as three months before her termination, with ratings of "excellent" or "outstanding" in all areas of her work.
Smith blames Troupe for bringing on the scrutiny of the federal government.
Troupe, for his part, makes no apologies if his actions did create problems for the agency. "It's not that I'm anti-HDC. I'm just pro-efficiency and productivity, and the black organizations are going to have to start increasing their capacity to do good work. She just happened to be one of the first ones," he says. Troupe says he was concerned for the children and the quality of services HDC provides. "They lost their Early Head Start program, and Early Head Start is good for kids," he said. "When you look at what's happening to the kids, we had no choice but to bring the roof down."
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