The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County has a new leader and a new plan to show residents what they’re getting for their tax dollars.
Along the way, the agency hopes to leave behind a string of bad publicity that came from revelations the former director had awarded several large no-bid contracts, and from a stinging audit that criticized the agency’s leadership.
Members of the Children’s Board voted unanimously Friday to select Kelley Parris, an experienced leader in children’s and mental health issues, as its new executive director.
Parris, the director of Alabama’s Department of Child Abuse Prevention, was picked from five finalists to lead the agency, which is charged with working with nonprofit groups to coordinate and enhance programs for children and families.
The board’s attorney will prepare a two-year contract, and Parris is expected to start July 1. Her salary will be $115,000 to $140,000; the contract limits severance pay to 12 weeks of salary.
The Children’s Board was created by taxpayers in 1988 and is supported by a property tax of 50 cents per $1,000 of a home’s valuation. The board has a $35 million annual budget and distributes money to nonprofit groups that work on education, health care and social welfare for children.
Continued funding is not automatic; Hillsborough County residents will vote in 2016 on whether to continue the tax.
Getting the organization’s message out is critical, said former Mayor Pam Iorio, who has been serving as the organization’s interim chief executive officer since August. She said the agency needs to be “more external.”
“Many members of the public don’t know what we do,” Iorio said. “They don’t know what we fund, what we hope to get in terms of outcomes. The next person has to be an effective communicator who can make sure that the work is known to all and to be really out in the community. That can be done, and she can do it.”
Parris said she was excited to be selected and hopes to meet with focus groups throughout the county to learn what programs are working and what needs to be offered. She would like to initiate a promotional campaign to inform the public about the Children’s Board services and how it spends tax dollars.
“I know there is value in letting people know what the organization does,” Parris said.
She said she was interested in the position because of the organization’s reach.
Her professional passions include programs related to child abuse and neglect prevention, domestic violence, incarcerated women and mental illness.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Parris, who lives in Montgomery, Ala., “I think there are great things we can do together.”
Last year, the organization came under fire when former CEO Luanne Panacek admitted to awarding four no-bid contracts totaling $450,000. One contract worth $50,000 was to a former board employee.
The pressure mounted when board members received the results of an independent audit that said confidence in the executive leadership didn’t exist.
Panacek was dismissed last year and the board brought in Iorio to help stabilize the agency and rebuild its credibility. Iorio reduced the number of employees from 55 to 36, redirecting the $1.4 million in savings to help fund more children’s programs.
Board members said they are looking forward to the next chapter.
“I thought Kelley Parris brought a background that was very appropriate and very close to what we try and do,” said Christopher Brown, the agency’s board chairman. “And she brought an enthusiasm with that background.”
Parris brings charisma, experience, insight and vision, said Dorethea Edgecomb, the agency board vice chairwoman.
“We’re ready to move forward,” she said “I think this is a great beginning.”
After Parris starts, Iorio said, she will step aside but stands ready to help.
“I’m only just a phone call away if anyone ever needs me,” Iorio said.