Graduate Alyssa Briceno embraces family members after receiving her diploma as the Montgomery branch of the Latin American Youth Center holds its graduation ceremony for GED students on May 25. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On the day Lori Kaplan learned that the nonprofit group she heads will probably lose its $800,000 contract to help at-risk youth in Montgomery County, she was in Rockville to receive an award.

From the Montgomery County Commission on Children and Youth.

For outstanding service to youth.

“We feel like we were performing well,” said Kaplan, president and chief executive of the District-based Latin American Youth Center, whose Montgomery arm offers GED and college preparatory classes and job and internship placement to about 400 young people each year.

The Maryland Multicultural Youth Center, which held an exuberant graduation ceremony for its GED students last week, is one of a network of nonprofit organizations the county government hires to reach “disconnected” youth — those out of school and jobless. It has operated in Montgomery, an affluent Washington suburb with deepening pockets of poverty, for 11 years.

But the roles of the nonprofit groups are under reassessment as the county overhauls its approach to helping at-risk young people enter the workforce.

Elected officials and business leaders have long regarded Montgomery’s job-development efforts, funded mostly by federal dollars scattered across multiple county departments, as ad hoc and inefficient. A 2013 County Council study concluded that Montgomery reaches only a fraction of the estimated 4,000 disconnected youth who live within its borders.

“We were frustrated with it,” Council President Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said. “A lot of good people are trying to do the right thing, but not in a systematic way.”

Last year, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and the County Council agreed to place youth employment and workforce development in the hands of the private sector.

They created WorkSource Montgomery, a private entity operated by an independent board, to award and manage $5 million in workforce development contracts on the government’s behalf.

The idea, officials said, is to streamline the system so job-seekers receive training that better meets the specific needs of private employers. Similar groups have been established in Fairfax and Anne Arundel counties.


Graduates toss their mortar board caps into the air at the graduation ceremony for GED students from the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

As it began operation, WorkSource Montgomery asked the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center and other nonprofit groups to present new contract proposals if they wanted to continue their work.

A consultant hired to evaluate the proposals recommended replacing Kaplan’s youth center with a New York-based for-profit firm, Grant Associates, which also has a contract with the District government to provide workforce development and job placement.

The consultant, District-based Strumpf Associates, cited several factors, including lack of information in the center’s proposals about financial and accounting systems and its plans for accommodating disabled youth.

The center is protesting the decision. Its 37-page response said Strumpf “irrationally” assigned weaknesses to the proposal where none existed, ignoring two full pages that detailed finances and accounting. The response also accused Strumpf of an “unreasonable misreading” of the center’s proposal for disabled youth.

Kaplan said the center has met or exceeded performance goals over the past 18 quarters. County officials have never publicly expressed dissatisfaction with its work.

The head of another long-time nonprofit contractor not selected, Workforce Solutions Group, said Strumpf should not have been involved in the evaluation process.


A graduate paces in the sun streaked lobby of the Civic Building. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

In a letter to WorkSource Montgomery, Bruce Levine, chairman of the board of Workforce Solutions Group, said Strumpf Associates President Lori Strumpf has prior ties to his organization and to the Maryland Multicultural Youth Center because of past consulting work with the county.

Levine’s letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, said Strumpf had access to details about internal operations “that eliminate any impartiality and obviously unduly influence her consideration . . . where other proposers would not face the same scrutiny.”

WorkSource Montgomery chief executive Ellie Giles said in an email that because the selection process is ongoing, “we are limited in what we are able to share at this time.” She added that WorkSource Montgomery “is committed to running a fair and equitable vendor selection process.” Strumpf repeated that message in a separate email Thursday evening.

The situation has caused dismay in Montgomery’s nonprofit community, where the Latin American Youth Center is held in high regard.

In a letter to Floreen on Thursday, Gustavo Torres, executive director of the Latino advocacy group CASA, praised the Latin American Youth Center’s “strong track record in Montgomery County.”

Evan Glass, executive director of the Silver Spring afterschool program Gandhi Brigade Youth Media, said he “worked very closely with LAYC on various projects and was always amazed at their level of professionalism and the quality of their work.” He recently hired one of the center’s graduates to join his staff.

Because the $800,000 workforce development contract helps support other center activities — such as a mentoring program for middle-schoolers, gang prevention and an environmental conservation corps — those programs, too, are now in jeopardy, Kaplan said.

“This whole thing is wrong on so many levels,” she said.


Nancy Floreen, County Council President, addresses graduates. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

At Wednesday evening’s ceremony in Silver Spring’s Civic Building, 29 graduates of the GED program marched down the aisle in caps and gowns to “Pomp and Circumstance” before a wildly cheering audience of parents, friends and squirming children.

Floreen delivered the commencement address, making no mention of the controversy.

“We’re so proud of you. You’ve been through a lot,” she told the students, calling the GED “a milestone and a stepping stone.” In an interview, she said she would leave the contracting issues up to the WorkSource Montgomery board.

Graduates expressed concern that this would be the last graduation for an organization that many called a personal game changer.

Yaseen Sanchez, 21, who dropped out of Springbrook High School but is now attending Montgomery College, said the center allowed him to be himself in a way that high school never could. “It gave me the chance to open up, to be nerdy and know that it wasn’t a bad thing.”

Sanchez, who wants to write novels, said he could see the impact of the programs on younger kids, some of whom he mentored.

Were it not for the center, he said, “a lot of these kids would have ended up in jail.”

Correction: Earlier versions of this story should have said that a quote attributed to Bruce Levine, chairman of the board of Workforce Solutions Group came from a letter he wrote to WorkSource Montgomery, protesting the process used to award a contract for workforce development in the county.