Fired employee says Bluffton after-care program abruptly closed after she raised concerns

Dozens of Bluffton students were left without after school care Monday after the founder of a longtime outreach program that serves Beaufort County abruptly shut down one of the program’s learning centers on Simmonsville Road in the wake of staffing shake-ups within the organization.

Parents of the 33 students served by the Onyx Luxury Apartments location of Neighborhood Outreach Connections, an after school tutoring program for children of lower-income families at six apartment locations in Beaufort County, were not formally notified about the closure, according to the program’s former director, Abby Seda.

Seda, along with the program’s community liaison, was fired Friday.

On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Narendra Sharma, founder of NOC, denied that the Onyx closing was related to the firings or to any staffing issues.

When initially asked by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette the reason he closed the Onyx location, Sharma attributed it to a “routine” state Department of Education inspection.

When pressed for more details in a phone call an hour later, Sharma gave a new explanation: the center was closed because of an inspection by the Bluffton fire marshal.

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Bluffton fire marshal Dan Wiltse said he had met with Sharma but had not conducted any inspection or done anything that would have required the center to close.

When told Wiltse’s response, Sharma gave a third explanation: the closure was due to a slow inspection process related to the federal 21st Century Community Learning Center Program, which funds the Onyx center and is administered by the state education department.

However, South Carolina Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said Tuesday evening the program is not currently being inspected.

The decision to close the program, Brown said, was made by Sharma after Sharma terminated all of the employees at the Onyx center.

“The implication that we decided to close the center is incorrect,” said Brown, who noted that the state has never closed any 21st Century Community Learning Center location in South Carolina.

Brown also said the state has received “several complaints” from Onyx center employees.

‘Breaking the rules’

Seda, the former program director at Onyx, said Tuesday morning the center closed because she and the community liaison were fired Friday after they had asked Sharma to show them more respect and for financial transparency from the organization.

Their termination came after three resignations by Neighborhood Outreach Connection staff, including the organization’s executive director.

In emails to Sharma on Thursday, Seda pushed for answers on how grant money was being spent at the center and accused Sharma of jeopardizing the program.

Sharma responded to Seda in an email Friday: “We have not experienced anything like this during the past 10 years. At this time I will not address the points raised in the email below, but be assured the Executive Committee and I will be responding.”

Five hours after sending the email, Sharma fired Seda and the community liaison.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sharma said he would not comment on the reason for the terminations.

He said he had “dismissed” allegations of disrespect toward staff and denied there was a lack of financial transparency in the organization.

When asked how he had determined the allegations could be “dismissed,” he declined to comment.

“Generally organizations do not comment on personnel matters,” he said.

‘Parents should be happy’

Neighborhood Outreach Connection also manages after school centers in Bluffton’s Avalon Shores, The Oaks and Cordillo Courts on Hilton Head Island and Marsh Pointe and Parkview Apartments in Beaufort.

Sharma founded the organization in 2008 and is chairman of the organization’s board of directors.

When Seda and the community liaison went to drop off keys and documents at the Onyx Learning Center on Sunday, Seda said they found the locks changed and signs in English and Spanish taped to the door saying the center was “temporarily closed until further notice.”

On Tuesday, Seda expressed shock by this — two days earlier, Sharma had told her to focus on opening the center Monday rather than her complaints against him, according to an internal email obtained by the Packet and Gazette.

After discovering the signs on the door, Seda said she waited a few hours to see if Sharma would make an announcement to parents about the closure.

When that didn’t happen, she said, she took action.

Seda said that until she informed parents of the closure Sunday evening on WhatsApp, a group texting platform for mobile devices, they were unaware of what was going on.

“There were parents that didn’t read this and brought their kids (on Monday),” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Packet and Gazette asked Sharma about the suddenness of the closure and its potential effect on parents.

“The parents should be happy,” he said. “We’re providing them free space for their children.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.