Dozens demand leaders’ resignations at suicide prevention nonprofit; board says unrest is due to a ‘misunderstanding’

photo by: Contributed

Ruby Johnson

Dozens of current and former employees and volunteers at suicide prevention nonprofit HeadQuarters Kansas are demanding the resignation of the entire board of directors and a newly appointed interim executive director, while the board attributes unrest at the agency to a “misunderstanding” about its actions while responding to a potential misuse of funds.

A letter making those demands and more, which lists 100 signatures and was sent to the board Tuesday, was emailed to the Journal-World anonymously Thursday. An accompanying email message signed by “concerned citizens” notes that the message sharing the letter was sent anonymously due to employees’ concerns that they could lose their jobs and health care benefits for speaking with the media.

The letter expresses a lack of confidence in the board’s ability to lead HeadQuarters Kansas, which serves as the primary 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline contact center for the state of Kansas. The accompanying email claims that approximately 80% of the nonprofit’s current employees have signed the letter, and the group gave board members until 10 a.m. Thursday to respond before “last resort steps” were taken to notify the press.

Along with the resignations, the letter also demands the establishment of a “competent” board of directors and the appointment of Monica Kurz, former vice president of policy & prevention, as interim executive director.

According to the letter, the group’s concerns stem from the board’s apparent decision to ignore recommendations from Andrew Brown, the deputy secretary at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, who on March 27 expressed concerns about the board’s ability to stabilize and operate the agency in light of recent leadership changes.

The letter claims that Brown recommended that board chair Michelle Fales resign and that the board vote to appoint Kurz interim executive director. Instead, the letter claims the board notified staff a few days later that board vice chair Ruby Johnson would be appointed to that role, which the nonprofit announced publicly on Wednesday. The letter claims the board is “putting the agency and its primary funding source in severe jeopardy” by failing to follow Brown’s recommendations.

The letter also claims that Johnson continued to serve on the board while an applicant for the executive director position — having previously voted to remove a former president and CEO and vice president of clinical programming at the agency whose names were both redacted in the letter — and only resigned upon being appointed to the position.

“Ruby’s dual roles and active participation during strategic decisions made by the (board) demonstrated a clear conflict of interest and personal gain,” the letter claims. “The writers of this letter do not condone or support the appointment of Ruby Johnson as interim executive director and also demand that she step down.”

The letter claims that since those two unnamed leaders were removed, the board has “demonstrated a severe inability to focus on activities essential for maintaining 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline services and the services contracted for with Douglas County.”

Instead, the board has pursued “unnecessary” policy changes in an effort to “exercise control over staff’s ability to execute day-to-day operations.”

“The consequences of the (board) not pursuing the recommendations of Deputy Secretary Brown will certainly result in the removal of 988 state funding and the dissolution of an agency with a 55 year history of providing vital and essential services,” the letter reads. “Douglas County is highly likely to follow the decision of KDADS by denying funding for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. Losing these funding sources will result in the dissolution of HeadQuarters Kansas and the dismantling of essential services for the prevention of suicide in Kansas.”

A statement from the board of directors shared with the Journal-World Thursday afternoon doesn’t mention Brown’s recommendations. Instead, it paints a picture of potential mishandling of funds that occurred at the agency between 2021 and 2023 — apparently without board knowledge or approval — that “put the funding of the agency in jeopardy.”

“While the board does not believe anything criminal happened, we immediately took action to protect the integrity and sustainability of the agency and our funding,” the statement reads.

According to the statement, staff surveys collected in late December 2023 prompted a “thorough inquiry” of the agency’s finances, which the board notified its funding partners at the state and county about. The statement says that from June 2021 to June 2023, a minimum of $206,000 in funds “may not have been used in compliance with grant guidelines,” meaning the agency will be re-audited for those three years.

The statement does, however, attribute the need for personnel changes and policy revisions to the board’s inquiry about the issues concerning the nonprofit’s finances.

“It is required that all board members, volunteers and employees strictly adhere (to) the policies the board has put in place in (order) to ensure the financial integrity and to allow HQ to continue to provide valuable and vital services in moments of need to support safety (and) reduce suicide to build resilience for the people of Douglas County and the state of Kansas,” the statement reads.

The statement says that while the board understands that process has led to “frustration” for staff, it’s also escalated in a way that has resulted in the “proper channels of communication” going unused and led to a “misunderstanding of where the organization is and why certain decisions were made.”

“Moving forward, we hope that our employees will choose to engage with us in problem solving and protecting our organizational mission,” the statement reads. “We believe that the only path forward is together, and to work with transparency to better serve our community.”


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