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Former key SAGA employees worry about financial stability

Posted: September 21, 2011 - 12:02am

Two former high-ranking Southeast Alaska Guidance Association (SAGA) officials say that their firings may have strong financial consequences for the nonprofit youth organization.

One of these is Joe Parrish, SAGA founder and executive director. Parrish said he was given an ultimatum in late August to resign by Aug. 30 or be fired. He said this came as a surprise, as there had been no previous indications that something was wrong and he had never even been evaluated in the 25 years since the nonprofit’s founding.

“I was told I had to or I would be fired,” Parrish said. “I didn’t resign so they fired me.”

Parrish said the reasons behind his dismissal are a mystery. He said he was offered no explanation.

According to the SAGA website, “SAGA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve lives, lands, and communities in Alaska through Service Learning.” It was founded in 1985.

SAGA did not return comment for this story, but both Interim Executive Director Scott Young and Board Chair Matt Smith previously told the Empire that the company can’t comment on personnel matters.

SAGA’s former finance director Jenifer Shapland said she was also fired as an indirect result of Parrish’s departure.

“I was fired subsequent to Joe being fired for carrying out my legal responsibilities as chief financial officer,” she said.

She said she got in trouble for informing sponsors that AmeriCorps was evaluating SAGA’s grants as a result of key personnel changes. She said she was specifically forbidden to tell anyone who could be impacted by lost funding, but she did so anyway, which she said led to her dismissal.

Parrish and Shapland say that their positions aren’t the issue here as much as what this change could mean for SAGA’s financial future.

Parrish said he is concerned that there was no succession plan for his departure. He said AmeriCorps has to ensure SAGA has the capacity to properly carry out its funds and must be informed of any key personnel changes at SAGA. He said that funds have been frozen for nearly a month while making this determination. He this has a serious impact and also worries that $450,000 of AmeriCorps funds could be in trouble due to his firing without a succession plan.

Serve Alaska partners with the state Community Service Commission to distribute AmeriCorps funds. Serve Alaska’s executive director, Nita Madsen, agreed that it’s part of the deal for AmeriCorps funding to be informed on key personnel changes. She said she’s been in contact with SAGA and its board through this transition.

She said that the $450,000 mentioned is the annual amount SAGA receives, but it is actually distributed on a monthly basis with an annual monitoring in January. She said the September payment is being reviewed now instead of later due to the transition. Therefore, the current evaluation is for the month rather than the whole amount.

“So it’s business as usual, just the dates have changed slightly” Madsen said.

Parrish said that an upcoming reception with First Bank to celebrate SAGA’s 25 years was also being planned, during which First Bank would have donated $10,000 and encouraged other donations. He said the celebration was cancelled after his firing. He wasn’t sure about the status of the donation.

First Bank Area Manager Kurt Mattle couldn’t comment on the donation or the reception.

Parrish also said more than $200,000 in funds for projects with the Forest Service next year are now in jeopardy.

SAGA’s website contains a brief history of the group, founded, it states, “as a way to fill the void left when federal funding ended for the Youth and Young Adult Conservation Corps programs in the early 1980s. The focus of providing job training, experiential education, and leadership opportunities to young people has grown over the years into five SAGA programs: The Serve Alaska Youth Corps; the Alaska Service Corps; Young Alaskans Building Affordable Housing (YABAH); the Connections Individual Placement Program; and the Eagle Valley Center. These programs all represent our continuing dedication to helping young people make the connection between what they learn and how they live.”

Parrish and Shaplan say they’ve asked for mediation with SAGA to come up with a succession plan or other solutions to any financial implications for the organization.

“There has been no response from the board requesting mediation or showing any interest in it,” Parrish said.

They both say the important thing is SAGA’s continuation.

“There’s been no reason, no explanation given for my firing,” Parrish said. “SAGA is my first-born child and I want it to definitely survive and thrive when I’m gone, and having a good succession plan is part of making that happen.”

“The message I want to convey is that we’re very concerned about SAGA’s well-being,” Shapland said. “No other AmeriCorps program in Alaska serves disconnected youth. We’d like to mediate with the board to come to a resolution to this problem so that its mission can continue. That mission is of great important and has been for 25 years.”

She said SAGA is an economic benefit to the state while the youth it serves learn job skills and confidence.

“Hundreds of alumni of SAGA are right here in Juneau holding down good jobs and there are many more throughout Alaska in the most remote areas of the state. We serve a population that is underserved,” she said.

Parrish said SAGA started with 15 kids and a $60,000 budget and has grown to serve the whole state with 130 kids and a $1.5 million budget.

“I’ll be fine but the well-being of SAGA is really the issue here,” Parrish said.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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