Nonprofit Woodbourne Center lays off 66, closes 8 programs

202-year-old agency is $2 million in red

April 14, 2000|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

About $2 million in the red, one of Maryland's oldest nonprofit agencies has laid off 66 workers and closed eight programs, from a welfare-to-work agency to a community partnership working with West Baltimore youth.

The Woodbourne Center Inc. started as an orphanage two centuries ago and is the fifth-oldest child-care agency in the country. But over the past few years, it radically expanded its mission -- adding in-home counselors, running several city public schools and opening the Millennium Center, a for-profit subsidiary designed to help welfare clients get permanent jobs.

Those new programs, coupled with a $3.2 million renovation to its Northeast Baltimore campus last year, were too much for the organization to handle.

"What we're talking about is a rapidly growing organization that was taking on new programs at a very, very rapid pace," said John Hodge-Williams, longtime president and chief executive officer of the Woodbourne Group, which includes the center, a supporting foundation and several subsidiaries. "To my knowledge, there is absolutely no misconduct or misappropriation of funds."

Employees were laid off Monday, and organization officials have been holding in-house meetings to explain their moves to the 284 staffers who remain.

The Woodbourne Foundation, a separate nonprofit that provided fund-raising support to the center, has been reduced to two staffers from 10, and its future as a separate entity is in question.

Besides the layoffs, Woodbourne closed the Millennium Center; the Woodbourne Community Partnership, which was providing before- and after-school services to students at several West Baltimore schools; and several small programs in which counselors worked with families to keep children from going into foster care.

Woodbourne will continue to run several group homes; its 54-bed residential treatment center at its central campus at 1301 Woodbourne Ave.; and a foster-care program. It also will continue to operate three city public schools as part of the New Schools Initiative.

The layoffs and program closings should save the center $1 million over the next year, said Stanley Weinstein, who is serving as interim CEO while Hodge-Williams is on medical leave. The center is owed another $2.7 million from its government partners, Weinstein said, which contributed to the problems.

Those problems have been looming for several months.

For about six weeks last fall, officials acknowledged, disbursements were delayed to employees' 403(b) retirement plans, which operate much like 401(k) plans. Employees didn't know until they checked their accounts or tried to leave the organization.

In a few cases, workers' paychecks bounced. Hodge-Williams said those employees were paid, and retirement accounts were made whole, with interest.

The center has had three chief financial officers in the past 15 months, and was without financial expertise during several long periods, said Hodge-Williams.

"Obviously ... I am responsible for what happened," he said. "I do rely on the finance office to give me accurate reports regarding our financial situation. I could have been more diligent and maybe asked more questions."

Board chairman Charles Maker, a Baltimore consultant, said board members were caught by surprise when they first heard of problems last fall.

Only in the past few weeks, he said, have they had a clearer picture of Woodbourne's difficulties -- and many questions are still to be answered.

When Maker took over as chairman two years ago, he said, Hodge-Williams assured him that Woodbourne had enough money to expand its buildings and its programs.

ka-5 "Someone was telling someone the numbers are great," Maker said. "Is it upsetting to me? Yes, it is."


Woodbourne began modestly as the Female Charity School, founded in 1798 by a group of Baltimore women who wanted to help families left destitute by the American Revolution.

It expanded to serve troubled, parentless children, and through the years had such names as Home of the Friendless and Children's Home of Baltimore. Its Woodbourne Avenue property was the former summer home of philanthropist Enoch Pratt.

Sue Fitzsimmons, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Department of Social Services, which had just approved a second contract with the Millennium Center to get jobs for welfare recipients, said the agency had not been formally made aware of the center's closing.

"They were very good at what they did," Fitzsimmons said. "Our staff were looking forward to working with them."

Woodbourne also learned last month that its United Way allocation for this year, which makes up about 1 percent of its budget, would be cut by as much as 40 percent, Weinstein said.

"Their board appears to be working very hard on this situation," Larry E. Walton, president of the United Way of Central Maryland, said yesterday. "We are going to be available to assist them in any way possible."

Weinstein said that while the layoffs have been "painful," the organization's historic mission of treating troubled youth will continue.

"The core business is actually quite strong," Weinstein said.

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