Contractor Grilled About School Disrepair

Christopher Peak PhotosThe city’s school facilities director has again failed to get 11 needed contract renewals past the Board of Education’s Finance Committee, leaving instead with a public dressing-down and an order to clean up rusty nails and black mold at Wilbur Cross’s pool.

The Finance & Operations Committee decided not to advance those 11 contracts for approval for a second time at its most recent meeting, held Monday afternoon at the Gateway Center on Meadow Street.

In recent weeks, the Board of Education has applied heightened scrutiny to companies asking for a share of the school district’s budget. Amid a budget deficit and questions about conflicts of interest and unproven results, the Board of Education is trying to overhaul its procurement process, if haltingly at times.

At the latest meeting, committee members grilled two contractors about their past performance, then arrived at two different outcomes. The facilities director couldn’t explain away photographic evidence of disrepair that his on-call contractors (selected as the low bidders) could have fixed, while a sole-source provider (selected in a no-bid process) was able to produce numbers to prove its impact on students.

Facilities Slips On Dilapidated Pool

After confusion at a previous meeting about the bidding process for on-call repairmen, the facilities director came prepared with an 18-page memo. But he wasn’t expecting what hit him, when Jamell Cotto, the committee chair, passed out pictures of Wilbur Cross’s pool and locker rooms.

Two weeks ago, the facilities director, Joseph “Pepe” Barbarotta, an AFB Management employee under contract to keep up the district’s buildings and grounds, tried to get 11 contracts past the committee. The contracts are all for on-call repairmen who submit prices ahead of time to jump on emergencies that school employees can’t handle. The committee tabled the request because, members said, they feared Barbarotta hadn’t gotten the best price during a budget crunch.

At Monday’s follow-up meeting, Cotto raised a second issue: performance. He said Barbarotta’s maintenance team wasn’t doing what it was paid for. “Who tours the schools to say this is unacceptable?” he asked. “Somebody’s not doing their job. It makes no sense.”

Courtesy Jamell CottoFor the last 14 years, the Wilbur Cross pool was rented out to private schools.  Cross students are now trying to restart a swim team there. But the building has fallen into disrepair. At the team’s first meet in December, the Independent reported that the pool had a broken circulation system, dampening the air with humidity and cracking the paint. On-site employees didn’t know how to work a scoreboard or a pool cleaner.

Cotto’s pictures showed the situation is even worse in the locker rooms. A chunk of ceiling had fallen through in one corner, bathroom stalls lacked doors, a sink’s faucet had broken off, showers had gone green with mildew.

“Oh, gosh,” Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, a committee member and pediatrician, said as she flipped through the pictures. “I am appalled at what you just showed me.”

“Something’s wrong with your lead man,” added Frank Redente, the committee’s vice-chair. “He needs glasses.”

“There’s mold. The sink’s broken. Do you know why? Because it was allowed to get that big,” Cotto said. “That shit has been sitting there.”

After that drubbing, Barbarotta argued that holding up the contracts wouldn’t help these types of issues get resolved. His team is already stretched thin across the district’s huge size, he said.

“We have 50 buildings with 4.2 million square feet, and we have 12 tradesmen. One plumber does all those schools. That’s what I have in-house,” he said. “There’s 11,000 work orders a year done by those 12 guys. If I have a contract to get more plumbing back-up, I can take care of problems in the bathrooms.”

Barbarotta added that he didn’t know about the problems at Cross’s pool. Unless the custodial staff or the principal submits a work order, it might not get his team’s attention, he said.

Cotto wasn’t buying. “The maintenance guy cleans every day, and doesn’t report it?” he asked. “Were there any work orders regarding what’s in the pictures?”

“I’ll have to check,” Barbarotta said.

“No one reported all the paint in the ceiling that’s fallen into the pool?” Cotto asked, jumping to his feet. “I can’t move ahead with these. I need time to further investigate what’s going on with work orders and why the needs aren’t being met.”

Jackson-McArthur agreed, saying she felt “uneasy” renewing a contract if she wasn’t sure about the current performance. The committee member said Barbarotta should start preparing to go out to bid again.

Cotto said he plans to tour other schools with his camera this week. Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, said he’d give Cotto copies of the blank work order form to fill out.

“I’d make a bunch,” Cotto told him.

Clark said that nearly all the repairs were made by Wednesday, except for repainting, which is going out to bid.

Evidence-Based: Not Enough?

Christopher Peak PhotosOne other contractor had to explain past work to the committee on Monday afternoon. In recent years, Clifford-Beers Clinic was hired to intervene with New Haven students showing signs of trauma, and the agency hoped to help social workers employed by the district reach even more students on their own.

At Monday’s meeting, the committee considered a proposal to direct $25,000 in federal grant money to Clifford-Beers to train 20 school social workers to administer an evidence-based group therapy on their own. The clinic would also provide 10 weeks of support during the social workers’ first run at the intervention.

Clinic representatives told the committee they have hard numbers to show that it’s worth continuing the intervention to help students with social and emotional problems, even if Clifford-Beers is no longer administering it directly.

Known formally as Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), the 10-week group therapy, for seven students at a time, was originally used by the clinic in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. So far, it’s showing promising results in an urban setting too, leading to a major drop in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to numbers presented by Kim Jewers-Dailley, the director of the New Haven Trauma Coalition.

Sue Peters, a district employee who coordinates the school-based health clinics, proposed expanding the intervention from 6 schools to 11 that get extra funding from the government for the high proportion of children from low-income families.

“What this group decided to do is build some internal capacity,” Peters explained. “We don’t even need to hire people to do this. They’re all licensed social workers at the school-based health clinics and schools together.”

Going in, students commonly described witnessing violence, like gang activity, fights, robberies and assaults; experiencing a relative’s incarceration; and seeing serious accidents, where someone was badly hurt or died. According to a 51-point test of PTSD symptoms, where 15 points represents the cut-off to make a clinical diagnosis, New Haven’s students averaged 27 points. After CBITS, their average score dropped to 16.3 points. The number of students below the non-clinical range shot up to 48 percent.

Students also showed a 7.8-day reduction in unexcused absences. About 40 percent of the students who were chronically absent before the intervention started showing up during that school year.

On the other hand, the intervention didn’t seem to affect 16 percent of the students in 2015-16 and 33 percent in 2016-17 —  a number Clifford-Beers said it wants to push down to 10 percent.

The committee members didn’t ask about why those cohort didn’t succeed or how school social workers could hit that benchmark, but they did wonder whether the clinic’s program overlaps with Youth Stat’s other offerings, like Integrated Wellness Group’s crisis therapy.

“Are you getting their kids [into CBITS]? They’re supposed to be the highest, greatest needs,” Jackson-McArthur said. “Now, are those children going to be a part of this?”

Peters explained that the criteria for administering a clinical intervention for PTSD might be different from those for Youth Stat’s offerings. In 2015-16, Clifford-Beers screened 949 students, only 114 of whom qualified for the intervention. Peters added that the clinic doesn’t ask about YouthStat on the intake forms, and she wasn’t sure even how Youth Stat identifies at-risk kids.

“That’s a problem right there,” said Darnell Goldson, the school board’s president.

“They’re referred because of issues with schools. For instance, a child throws a chair at the principal. They have social stress: a parents’ divorce or the death of a grandparent. The referrals come from teachers, pediatricians, guidance counselors,” Jackson-McArthur said. “With this, why do you have to recreate the wheel? Seven hundred students are already in the schools where you’re going.”

Peters agreed that she doesn’t want to “duplicate” any services, but she maintained that a social worker’s clinical scoring of a student’s PTSD symptoms didn’t always match up with a teacher’s reports. “They might not be throwing a chair, but they might be in trouble,” Peters said.

“I’m saying we don’t have to go seek out these students,” Jackson-McArthur responded. “We have 700 and I added someone today. It’s happening at a record rate because of the trauma we have in our classrooms, and I don’t want us to have to waste time looking for people when there’s a process in place to channel the children who need us in that capacity.”

By consensus, the committee agreed to send that contract forward so long as Peters gets in touch with Youth Stat to coordinate services. “We’re not just asking, we’re telling you that you need to coordinate,” Goldson said. He added the board would vote on a resolution at the next meeting to receive regular reports.

Other Contracts Approved

In total, the finance committee recommended drawing down $143,040 from the general fund, plus allocating $839,157 in grant funds. The committee also accepted $16.7 million in state grants, some of which has already been spent.

The contracts that the committee moved ahead included:

  • $700,000 to Roch’s Fresh Foods, a Rhode Island distribution center, to provide fresh fruits and produce for cafeterias next school year.
  • $90,000 to Elm City Montessori, a charter school in Fair Haven Heights, for its contracted quarterly payment for core classroom staff.
  • $62,082 to Total Communications, an East Hartford telecommunications company, in an amendment to an existing contract for extra equipment to replace schools’ network hubs.
  • $53,040 to Fibertech Network, a New York company, to renew its contract for the fourth and final time for its fiber-optic network.
  • $30,000 to Liliana Minaya-Rowe, an independent contractor and expert in instruction for English language learners (ELL), to train Hillhouse High School educators in “sheltered instruction,” special strategies that help non-language teachers make lessons comprehensible to ELLs.
  • $25,000 to Clifford Beers Clinic to train 20 social workers in CBITS and provide 10 weeks of support during the rollout.
  • $17,600 to Plascon Packaging, a Michigan-based manufacturer and low bidder, for plastic crates and aluminum dollies to transport food.
  • $7,500 for the Connecticut Center for Non-Violence to pilot “neighborhood explorations” in Fair Haven and Newhallville for High School in the Community, with the goal of introducing new teachers to the area and training students in leadership and urban studies.

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posted by: gogogordon on March 8, 2018  5:22pm

Other districts in CT have experimented with contracted services for facilities and maintenance with mixed results.  I know some have moved away from contractors and back to in house management.  I really question the value of paying an outside company to take care of our investments in schools.  We have spent a tremendous amount of money on these buildings and I want to know that the people looking after them care for them as much as we, the citizens of New Haven do.  We may save money by not having a proper facilities staff in house but this may be a case where we gain longterm value by dedicating our current resources towards people loyal to the citizens and students who keep up on the minor problems and not allow them to become major problems.

posted by: Noteworthy on March 8, 2018  6:34pm

Oh please. The maintenance has neen poor for years and years. Contractpr shoddiness sure - but include Meadow Street. The central office does not budget enough for maintenance. They keep building schools and don’t maintain them. What yesr was ut that Mayo/Clark asked the state to pick up the tab for maintenance? This is another reason to stop Strong School construction.

posted by: Paul Wessel on March 8, 2018  9:54pm

Did a member of the Board of Education really say “That shit has been sitting there” in a public meeting?

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on March 8, 2018  10:47pm

What is really going on here?

Accountability measures? Or power grab?


posted by: duncanidaho645 on March 8, 2018  11:56pm

You’re telling me that the facilities director or Will Clark can’t pull up the work orders on his phone?  You are being played.  Kudos to Cotto for stepping up. 

Regardless of whether or not the plumbing works correctly, water should be cleaned up before there is visible mold.  AFB is being paid a considerable sum of money to make sure these issues are addressed and the best they can do is blame a subordinate?  I bet you dollars to donuts that it is an AFB employee responsible for submitting these work orders.

For every work order Cotto has to submit himself money should be withheld from AFB for non performance of contractually obligated duties.

Once again, bring these services in house or watch the money continue to go down the toilet.

posted by: justice4all on March 9, 2018  12:12am

Not only is it disgraceful that Mr. Cotto would speak this way but the fact that he is the director of a youth organization and the President of that Board is also on this Board.  Somehow,these members think they are impressing us by this disrespectful, demanding attitude and almost bullying tone and instead our district is an embarrassment and shameful example to our children.  I wonder if this is how these members handle their own business with their clients, Board members or public.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 9, 2018  2:08am

NHPS should use SeeClickFix or some other transparent service request software for their facilities.

posted by: Noteworthy on March 9, 2018  7:42am

There is no need for another level of SeeClickFix. Every school has a principal, at least one assistant principal, a janitor, and in the case of Wilbur Cross, there are six assistant principals. Not one of the people can look at, repair or cause to be repaired, track needed repairs? This is basic management. The schools are not that large.

At Meadow Street - there is nobody who does quarterly inspections? That tracks repairs? Do we not have a maintenance crew? For a multi-million square foot set of facilities - we don’t have a sufficient maintenance budget?

posted by: MarcoHaven on March 9, 2018  8:45am

Remember that the cussing board member knows of what he speaks as he has sued the school district over maintainence before. You can’t make this stuff up.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on March 9, 2018  9:49am

The only thing more obscene than Cotto’s language is this newfound outrage. Judging by the photos none of these issues are new. Contractors are an easy, though necessary at times, scapegoat. Why didnt Goldson and Redente seize on these issues last year? Why not a stronger response to the concerns raised by student members about the lack of basic hygeine products like toilet paper and soap in those broken bathrooms? How is it that one could sit on the BOE and not have known about these old problems while authorizing millions for new builds? It’s time for BOE members to walk away from the boardroom and spend more time walking into all schools. Not just the ones who repeatedly make headlines, command nostalgia, or attract political interest from local and state entities. Each member should spend time hosting listening sessions at various schools. Every school that you keep open deserves safe conditions.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 9, 2018  10:01am

You just validated my point Noteworthy.

posted by: Noteworthy on March 9, 2018  11:58am

There is no validation in people not doing their jobs - from budgeting to fulfillment. So the validation of SeeClickFix is in the incompetence and lack of professionalism at the NHPS. So we should pay even more? No.

posted by: duncanidaho645 on March 9, 2018  4:13pm

I imagine there already is a computerized work order system.  One that may cost the district considerably more than SeeClickFix would.  The difference is in the transparency.  For instance, if the BUDGET was transparent you would already know the answer to this.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on March 9, 2018  4:38pm

The cost would be inconsequential in the school budget and the returns in efficiency would pay for itself, Noteworthy.

posted by: Elmer Shady on March 9, 2018  4:54pm

Ben B,

I didn’t know this forum was a commercial stalking horse for your future, wishful, endeavors…...

posted by: Christopher Peak on March 9, 2018  5:41pm

To add some more detail about what happened with the work-order system in this case, the district currently uses School Dude, a software company based in Cary, N.C. Clark described it as a “comprehensive system” that tracks work orders, invoices, permits and warranties. The system is “very user friendly and comprehensive to our needs,” he said. He said it’s useful to create reports for accountability and budget planning.

Regarding Cross’s pool, the system shows a 14 requests in the last year, many involving maintenance to pool’s pumps and backflow device. Since November 2017, the North Haven-based vendor CT Custom Aquatics has also been working on repairs to the pool’s vacuum cleaner and pump, with occasional help from the in-house electrician.

Other work orders have been outstanding for some time. The peeling paint has been in the queue since November 2016. The district says it’s waiting to secure $15,000 to scratch, patch, prime and paint the entire pool area. “Absent significant revenue some deferred maintenance is a reality,” Clark said in an email. “We prioritize health and safety issues and do as much proactive, preventative maintenance as we can within budget.”

With grants, the district has done major upgrades at Career and Conte. Martinez’s pool is next in line this summer.

Clark’s bottom line: “Here, it seems on the one hand that work orders were not put in and prioritized and that Managers were not on top of it as well to check and make sure everything was going well,” he said. “Yet on the other it shows when there is a report, much of the work can be completed pretty quickly.”

posted by: Karla Marx on March 9, 2018  11:12pm

The district can’t scrape together $15,000 to “scratch, patch, prime, and paint the entire pool area” but the new Superintendent is getting her office redecorated. Who knew Cotto would play the muckraker role so well?  If the Superintendent’s office turns out nice, he should stop there on his photo tour so the board can do a compare/contrast at their next meeting.

posted by: robn on March 10, 2018  9:29am

While were in a contractor accountability mode, it’s worth noting that city ordinances require any construction or infrastructure project that disturbs street paving to replace the paving as it was before. My anecdotal observation is that about 50% of The potholes in town are poorly replaced paving. Can we please enforce this law and require proper backfill, tamping and paving? The proof is in the failure and we have a record of every project.

posted by: Noteworthy on March 10, 2018  10:09am

BS and Budgeting Notes:

1. Clark’s explanation is weak and lame, more of an excuse and man-splaining than leadership.

2. It is the responsibility of the NHPS to properly budget for routine maintenance - and to have a sinking fund that functions as a replacement reserve to handle major equipment failures and replacements. Clearly, this is not being done.

3. When you have to ask the state to maintain what the state has already paid to build because you lack the competence and/or the discipline to propose, pass and manage an effective budget - you should be fired and replaced.

4. There is a fiduciary responsibility to take care of the property for which the taxpayers have paid for with hard earned money and long job hours. You have to wait for a fxxking grant? Really?

The absurdity of this stuff can’t be overstated.

posted by: fastdriver on March 10, 2018  12:00pm

I wonder HOW these companies are vetted? Is it just based on $$$$ amounts or do they really investigate to see if any school officials are related to or have some connection to the companies hired to do these repairs? Inquiring minds want to know.

Seems like a LOT of regular employees are not doing their job either. A principal, Asst. principal, teacher, coach, janitor etc. CAN’T bring these issues up to those in charge of fixing the situation or are they worried that there will be repercussions if they do so!

KUDOS to Mr. Cotto for taking pictures of the horrendous conditions! People should be more worried about what’s in the pictures instead of him using the word shit! Does it EVER end in New Haven?

posted by: NHTeacher203 on March 10, 2018  3:27pm

Justice4all: I agree, Mr. Jamel Cotto’s choice of words was absolutely disgraceful. As he is the director of a youth organization, I truly hope he doesn’t speak that way to (or in front of) the children attending the Farnam Community (Farnam Neighborhood House).

Furthermore, the conflicts of interest on this board are astounding. The most glaring is the fact that 3 current board members have ties to the Farnam Community (Farnam Neighborhood House).

Jamel Cotto- Director
Tamiko Jackson-McArthur- President of the Farnam Community’s BOD
Frank Redente- a retired 30 year employee

posted by: duncanidaho645 on March 10, 2018  6:45pm

When was the last time the job done by this SchoolDude software was bid on?  Sounds like this is far from a sole source provider situation from Ben Berkowitz’s response.  If the contract is being awarded that way, who is getting the kickback?  AFB is probably shaking them down in a similar manner to what the FBI is investigating them for.

Why doesn’t the NHPS in house IT create and maintain software/databases of this nature?

How much does this software cost the BOE?

Why is Will Clark offering paper forms to Cotto rather than allowing him access to the work order system? Something to hide?

posted by: UBHolden on March 11, 2018  9:44am

to NHTeacher203—

Didn’t realize the Farnam House connection, so add this one to the mess we call the BOE.  You have two Board BOE members in an awkward, if not conflicted situation:  Cotto actually works for Jackson-McArthur since she is on the Board of Directors that employs him.  Technically that gives her leverage over him—and presumably that leverage could be used to influence how he votes on the BOE.  I’m not saying that will happen, but if you ask someone who knows about governance and Boards of Directors, they will flag this as a major problem.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on March 11, 2018  10:34am

There is a thorny problem—“the central office does not budget enough for maintenance” yet NHPS faces serious cuts, even with the tax increase nobody wants.

It’s a closed system.  Setting more money aside for maintenance has to come from the budget for teachers or supplies or administrators or buses or cronies . . . . or else it doesn’t and then there is a deficit. 

Patching sidewalks and painting pools never has the same innovative flare as “high-tech enterprise platforms that guide students through curated curriculum playlists,” “fostering non-cognitive skills,” and “developing systems to effectively manage and evaluate cross-functional and cross-departmental projects and intitatives,” but you have to keep the lights on.


>>> “Why doesn’t the NHPS in house IT create and maintain software/databases of this nature?”

Considering how little the district has to spend on IT and how sparse that IT department is?  Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by under-funded bureaucratic inertia.

posted by: Brutus2011 on March 11, 2018  11:52pm

Karla Marx posted:

“The district can’t scrape together $15,000 to “scratch, patch, prime, and paint the entire pool area” but the new Superintendent is getting her office redecorated.”

If this is true, then no more needs to be said.

When are folks going to wake up?