CLEARWATER –– The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County demanded Thursday to know why the James B. Sanderlin Neighborhood Family Center fired the director of its reading program, Donna Welch, the wife of Pinellas County Commission chair Ken Welch.
The board didn’t get an answer.
"With regards to Mrs. Welch, we voted three times," said Sanderlin executive director Celeste Thomas, who sat on the family center’s board when it fired Welch in June. "Each time we voted, it was to let her go."
"What were the grounds for dismissal?" asked Juvenile Welfare Board member Bob Dillinger, the public defender of the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit.
Thomas would not answer that and other questions, saying she needs permission from Sanderlin board members to discuss personnel matters.
Dillinger replied that personnel decisions made by the Sanderlin Center has created additional work for the Juvenile Welfare Board, such as fending off accusations that Donna Welch was fired at the behest of the welfare board.
The Sanderlin center offers a variety of education-, health- and job-related programs at the center in Midtown. In June, the board questioned $16,000 in unused vacation pay that was given to three employees: Welch, executive director Lounell Britt and operations chief Delphina Davis.
The Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, which is supported by tax dollars, gives about $600,000 a year to the Sanderlin center so it can operate a faith-based literacy program. Welch ran that program for about 11 years.
She was later suspended for two weeks but exonerated by an investigation. Britt had authorized a change in policy to allow payment for unused vacation time without seeking approval from Sanderlin’s board of trustees. That was what Juvenile Welfare Board executive director Marcie Biddleman told the Tampa Bay Times in June.
But the vacation payouts led to the departure of all three employees: Welch was fired while Britt and Davis both stepped down.
Amid the turmoil, the Juvenile Welfare Board moved the reading program to the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg. Last month, that organization severed ties with Welch, records show, citing the uncertainty of the program for the next fiscal year.
Meanwhile Juvenile Welfare Board board members and staffers said Thursday that the agency has a right to review personnel files at the Sanderlin center because its receives tax dollars. Staffers plan to review Welch’s personnel file.
Biddleman told the Juvenile Welfare Board she was at the Sanderlin center when its board discussed Welch’s employment, but was told to leave the room when the board of directors voted to fire her.
Juvenile Welfare Board chair Brian Aungst Jr. said the agency has been trying "to get to the bottom of this" regarding Welch’s firing but cannot get answers. Thomas again declined to answer the question.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Patrice Moore, who sits on the juvenile board, said residents have lost faith with the Sanderlin center. She said they’re starting to place bets on when the center will close and no longer be able to serve the community.
"We deserve an answer," the judge told Thomas. "It has caused so much community division. There is a real bad taste in the community.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996.