Nonprofit’s backstage drama tumbles into the spotlight
The recently-constructed NECCA “trapezium” on Town Crier Drive in Brattleboro.

Nonprofit’s backstage drama tumbles into the spotlight

Mere weeks after opening a state-of-the-art facility, NECCA fires its founders, setting off a community backlash that shut down the school and put its future in serious question. What happened?

BRATTLEBORO — This was supposed to be a summer of triumph for the New England Center for Circus Arts.

In the space of a week, the 10-year-old nonprofit spun into chaos after its founders, Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, announced that they had been relieved of their duties as the school's artistic directors.

A public revolt by coaches and staff ensued.

Twenty of the school's 35 staff members went on strike, and eight of them resigned. A social media campaign erupted, demanding that NECCA fire interim Executive Director Michael Helmstadter and reinstate the twin sisters, who are veteran circus performers and trainers.

Amid multiple public rallies and marches in Brattleboro and a petition drive that has gathered more than 4,000 signatures, leaders of the “Save NECCA” movement also demanded the immediate resignation of the organization's trustees, which itself has seen a revolving door of board members in recent weeks.

For their part, trustees say they had no other responsible option than to distance themselves from Smith and Forchion, knowing full well that the emotional resonance of the act would upset the community.

The consequences were immediate and potentially devastating.

Parents began withdrawing their children and asking for refunds. Coaches say adult students have rescinded their acceptances to the $10,000-a-year professional-track program and have demanded refunds of their $3,200 tuition deposits.

Large donors began to question their financial support, which enabled NECCA only last month to open the doors to a new 8,600-square-foot “trapezium,” a state-of-the-art building with 40-foot-high ceilings to accommodate an indoor flying trapeze, an in-ground trampoline, and more.

Helmstadter agreed to step down on July 14 as the board, to no avail, pleaded with supporters of Smith and Forchion to stop the actions, cautioning that NECCA could not survive past this week without the coaches, parents, and students who are withholding their support.

Founded a decade ago, NECCA had grown from just a dream to one of the top circus arts training centers in the nation.

So how did this situation escalate to the point where the future of the school was put in serious jeopardy?

Beginnings in Guilford

Fifteen years ago, Smith and Forchion moved to Guilford.

The sisters, both veteran aerial artists with international circus experience, set up an outdoor trapeze in their backyard and started giving lessons.

That was the start of Nimble Arts, their business that included a company of circus performers that were available for hire to provide entertainment at events big and small. They also provided workshops and training for aspiring circus performers under the auspices of the limited liability corporation, which was registered in Vermont in 2003.

Soon, the enterprise was renting space at the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro. In 2007, the educational portion of the business forked into NECCA, and by 2009, the school was serving 200 students.

By 2016, the operation that started with a backyard trapeze was serving 2,000 students a year, with eight full-time employees, approximately 32 part-time employees, and revenues for the year of $1.1 million.

Too fast, too soon?

With a growing student body and multiple training sites in Brattleboro, it wasn't long before the fledgling school began dreaming of a space of its own.

According to former NECCA board president Kate Anderson, the twins sought to build the trapezium because they felt it would serve NECCA well to have such a facility.

When the sisters decided NECCA needed more room for their classes, Mel Martin, now the board president, said he eagerly got involved with their building committee and, later, on the capital campaign committee to raise $2.5 million for the proposed new structure.

The capital committee gained momentum, Martin said, when an anonymous donor stepped forward in 2015 to buy a parcel of land on Town Crier Drive for NECCA to use as a building site.

“NECCA was making a transition into a much larger organization with new committees, and the focus was on the new building and raising the money needed to go forward with construction,” he said.

The campaign received private donations that ranged between $500 and $250,000. It also received help from Brattleboro Savings & Loan and the Vermont Economic Development Authority to offer an advance on the portion of the fundraising that was still to be completed.

After raising $1.1 million, the school broke ground in September 2016, and the building was finished ahead of schedule in June. Summer campers at NECCA were the first to use the new facility.

There were concerns that Smith and Forchion might have moved too fast on building the new trapezium.

Aimée Hancock, one of NECCA's first coaches, said that the organization's first executive director, Bob Crego, was one who expressed such concerns.

“I understood that he felt that NECCA needed to focus on restructuring before moving forward on the building and that the board did not agree to this strategy, which resulted in his resignation,” said Hancock, whom The Commons contacted on the recommendation of Smith and Forchion. She is among the “G-11,” 11 senior coaches who have been organizing the public blowback. The group has designated her to speak for them in negotiations.

Ultimately, the board moved ahead.

“The board had been exercising due diligence in its deliberations regarding if and when to build the building for over two years,” Anderson said. Finally, a committee looked at the building issue one last time, and “of the 13 people on this working group, only one voted in the negative.”

Anderson added that it was important to note that “the building was built off of the success of the Capital Campaign, not off of operations.”

Growing pains

There were also concerns for the sisters about balancing fundraising with running a rapidly growing nonprofit.

Martin said he thinks Smith and Forchion “never envisioned that NECCA could grow to such a size. When you have to raise $2 million for a new building, plan and design that new building, and add new programs, it's a lot to deal with.”

Hancock similarly characterized the origin of this week's meltdown as NECCA's meteoric growth.

The school “had grown so hugely, and infrastructure was lacking,” she said, describing NECCA as a “mom and pop shop.”

Smith and Forchion served respectively as executive director and artistic director, but circus artists “don't travel in managerial [circles],” Hancock said. “They were not equipped to manage a large organization.”

“Knowing the personalit[ies] of the twins, I surmise that they thought everything was OK,” she said.

The school was, in fact, beginning to transition to a more structured management model. Crego was hired in December of 2015 to assume the title of executive director from Smith, who became artistic director along with her sister.

Regardless, employee tensions continued brewing.

Despite its growth and evolution, NECCA still had an organizational chart that sandwiched the twins between the board and the staff - a structure that is hardly unheard of and considered a traditional model of board/staff governance.

But in this context, “the board didn't hear about any of these issues,” Hancock said.

Helmstadter similarly described the structure as “the extreme funneling of information.”

A group of employees finally circumvented Smith and Forchion and, 16 months ago, directly approached then-president Anderson and voiced concerns, to let her know the view from the ground level. Some coaches sat in on a board meeting and presented a letter of actions requested.

Helmstadter confirmed that on Aug. 8, 2016, prior to his employment, nine formal grievances were filed by coaches and staff with the NECCA board, and that six coaches and one staffer attended a board meeting to discuss the grievances.

They met for 3{1/2} hours and, according to Helmstadter, the grievants “described a hostile working environment.”

He said that their concerns fell into several categories that included “intentional isolationism which constrains communication and cohesiveness, lack of supportive structure, being asked to teach disciplines without expertise, sometimes without any knowledge, gender and seniority inconsistency, disrespect of coaches and staff, fear of backlash, manipulation of people and information, fear of being blackballed in the industry and the community, lack of consistency in adhering to policies,” and decisions “based on the concept that the business is more important than its people.”

In an internal report on the meeting, trustees recognized “the need to act swiftly and decisively to begin to correct these issues. It is clear that without action, additional members of the staff will leave the organization, and their talents are valuable to NECCA.”

“There was deep disagreement between the staff and the founders,” Helmstadter said, “and the board decided a remedy was needed.”

“The board was shocked,” Hancock said. “They took it to heart and began a big process of cleaning.”

The sisters issued written apologies to everyone affected in the grievances. But according to coaches and staff, the shock created a huge stress to the working relationship between the board and NECCA's founders.

Hancock said that at that moment, “the difficulties the board had working with the twins solidified into a lack of trust.”

Amid all this turmoil, the board found itself hiring a replacement for Crego and hired Valery Bailey, first as interim executive administrator in September 2016 and then as interim executive director in November.

According to Hancock, “She was able to effect real change in the culture and healing amongst all of NECCA's personalities by working well with both the board and the founders.”

But just as soon as things were settling down, “she had to step down immediately in early December for personal reasons.”

The twins were removed from management duties in December as well.

In the midst of that change, Helmstadter - the husband of trustee Tracy Prentiss - came aboard quietly to assume Bailey's duties on an interim basis.

For his part, Helmstadter recalled that when he arrived at NECCA, “nothing had really changed.” And whatever progress had been made in mending the relations between the board and the twins stalled.

Serious charges

The tax-exempt, tax-deductible nonprofit is governed by its board of trustees, which until last week employed Smith and Forchion as artistic directors.

As Helmstadler described the setup in late June, “Elsie and Serenity direct programming and the artistic direction for the organization. I administer day-to-day operations and financial analysis.”

Professionalizing the operation was important, especially once NECCA set out to build the trapezium, said Helmstadter, who recalled finding an organization with some serious flaws.

Helmstadter said the IRS Form 990 - which nonprofits file with the federal government in lieu of tax returns - reports “had a number of inconsistencies,” starting with the failure to list ownership of Nimble Arts as a conflict of interest.

He also claimed that the sisters underreported their employment income on their 2014 and 2015 forms by as much as 40 percent, because of a structure they created that had Nimble Arts, the corporation, billing NECCA for some of the coaching provided to students.

Mel Martin said that he sees the current conflict as stemming from Smith and Forchion failing to clearly delineate the lines between the two entities.

“You have the same two people running Nimble Arts running NECCA, and it is hard to disassociate one from the other,” he said.

One document obtained by The Commons shows an analysis of the school's discounts afforded to Nimble Arts students and authorized by Smith and Forchion, implying a conflict of interest that was financially damaging to NECCA.

Hancock said that board members and staff who are not from the world of circus arts have had some good-faith misunderstandings about the strategy of such actions, which otherwise might look damning.

“Providing a discounted rate for NECCA's full-time students was in NECCA's best interests,” Hancock clarified in an email. “A majority of the teaching staff NECCA has today was able to take advantage of the discount in order to learn safe teaching practices and as a result, were able to commit to staying on at NECCA as teachers.”

“I would say that the board likely does not understand the scope in which this helped us retain and attract teachers. Not only that, it is a standard practice in various forms in many of the organizations where the Nimble Arts teacher trainings are taught.”

In the early days of the school, NECCA couldn't pay qualified people enough to make it worth their while to come to Brattleboro just for the school, Hancock said. So “Nimble Arts would engage [them] for performances, and NECCA would hire them for trainings and teachings.”

“That's how things were designed for scheduling,” the coach said. “That's the only way I would be here. I was a performer at the height of my career.”

Complicating the issue are NECCA's financial systems and structures.

“The only thing I know for sure is that NECCA's financials were organized in a way that was more complicated than necessary or ideal in the long run,” Hancock wrote on Tuesday. “We all had multiple pay rates and different categories in which our work was filed.”

“I've heard of multiple instances of this where searches for discrepancies have only turned up very easily answered questions that weren't clear without the understanding of how loopy our pay rates/teaching categories were organized.”

Both factions agree that the mushy and uncomfortable closeness of the nonprofit and the for-profit need work. For their part, the twins have publicly written that they had offered to engage legal counsel to address the issues with integrity but had been rebuffed by the board.

The group of coaches negotiating for a resolution have retained Brattleboro attorney James Valente, and he has helped analyze such issues as they have been emerging.

Tension and turmoil

As tensions between the board and the founders escalated, office staff noticed closed-door board meetings accelerating in frequency.

But by this time, staff frustrations had generally shifted. The twins both assumed the artistic roles and concentrated on preparing the trapezium for occupancy and safe use by students. Others stepped into administrative shoes.

Multiple staff members describe NECCA as operating under a backdrop of organizational chaos superimposed on communication issues of damaging extremes.

Yet the NECCA dissidents contend that the board was singularly focused on terminating the employment of the school's founders, Serenity Smith Forchion and Elsie Smith. In time, because of what Hancock described as an “inappropriate” text message from one administrator to another staffer, coaches learned that that measure was on the table.

In a memo that coaches presented to the board on May 29, they spelled out their collective view.

“[W]e have reached a point where, as stated, tension and turmoil have filtered through the organization and are being sensed by our students, and we are finding it difficult if not impossible to effectively do our jobs,” they wrote.

The coaches described communication and miscommunication among the board, the executive director and administrative team, and Smith and Forchion as artistic directors.

They painted a portrait of the nonprofit's operations as chaos in a time of rapid change and charged that Helmstadter was “ineffective in many of the responsibilities of an executive director.”

And the memo described a board meeting on May 8 where Forchion was presented with a disciplinary letter that warned that she could be dismissed by Helmstadter at any time, which Hancock said contradicted procedures delineated in NECCA's bylaws.

The final point of their memo drew a line in the sand.

“We are reaching out to you, NECCA's board of directors, because we believe that while emotions have run high and situations have been rocky, you have NECCA's best interests at heart. We believe that the same is true of the artistic directors.”

“We want you to know that the artistic directors have our support, and we believe that they must remain an important and involved part of NECCA's leadership team. We do not want to be a part of a NECCA where either or both of the artistic directors have been fired or have been further sidelined.

“So that you are fully informed, should either of these situations occur, the entire senior coaching staff and program directors present here would immediately resign.

“To reiterate: we are not looking for a return to the [artistic directors'] sole leadership, but nor do we believe that the current reorganization is tenable. We would like to be a part of the conversation that finds a way forward.”

Hancock said that at the end of the meeting, “there were hugs and discussions of hope.” But the coaches' exhortations “unfortunately precipitated” consequences, she said. A number of board members resigned, as did Helmstadter, albeit for a short time.

And in the end, “all they saw was the ultimatum,” Hancock said, noting that one board member had dismissed the concerns as misplaced personal loyalty to Forchion and Smith.

“It was so huge, shocking, and threatening that they didn't have the space to discuss it with any of us,” Hancock said.

The deed is done

On June 27, despite the senior coaches' ultimatum, the NECCA board met to take action and voted to terminate Smith's and Forchion's employment.

A termination letter was presented by the Board to Smith and Forchion on July 10, four days after Smith represented the school at the National Endowment for the Arts Circus Town Hall Symposium in Washington, D.C.

In an official statement from Helmstadter, he characterized it as “a difficult, yet necessary decision.”

However, the board offered the opportunity for them to continue to teach as subcontractors through their Nimble Arts business and to continue to recognize their role as founders of the organization.

In response to the statement, Smith issued a response.

“Those terms, in a letter offering the choice of resignation instead of termination, read 'NECCA may continue to occasionally contract with Nimble Arts, your for-profit enterprise.' This is not a real offer to Serenity and [me] to work in a collaborative role to rebuild NECCA. We are open to an offer that includes us in planning and participating in the future vision of NECCA.”

As soon asnews of the termination letter became public knowledge, the groundswell of opposition to the board's decision emerged.

Supporters of the sisters countered with a vigorous social media campaign, as well as public demonstrations of support, culminating in an announcement on July 14 by a group of NECCA coaches that they were walking out.

They also called for the resignations of Helmstadter and the five members of the board. Helmstadter announced his resignation, as did Trustee Elizabeth Harris-Warner. Martin became board president.

Since the walkout and the resignations, both sides have been working toward resolution. Two mediators - first Gordon Bristol and then Larry Cassidy - have stepped in find a way forward, and spokespeople from NECCA and the coaches alike were optimistic on Tuesday that a final agreement would soon be reached.

Meanwhile, a children's camp was scheduled to resume on July 19.

In a letter to the editor received at press time, Trustee Linda Schiffer of Middlebury said that the parties agree that the situation needs to be resolved immediately.

“The board is working with the coaches to make this happen - a general reorganization to better reflect what NECCA is, and to continue to further its mission,” she wrote. “As we all know, change is difficult. It was not the board's intent to dismantle the organization or disenfranchise anyone.”

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