11 School Contracts Tabled

Christopher Peak PhotoThe cash-strapped Board of Ed held off on renewing 11 facilities contracts that would make a major dent in next year’s budget, while it recommended OKing a consultant contract that nicks into this year’s already-overdrawn budget.

As the school district prepares to climb out of a $6.9 million hole this year and slash $10 million more next year, the board has turned up the pressure on administrators to explain why contracted services are needed, at their given price.

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the The Board of Education’s Finance & Operations Committee, the school system’s facilities director failed to sway committee members, who voted to halt $1.1 million worth of contract renewals.

But for all the heat employees had to take, other items during Tuesday’s meeting revealed that the board’s oversight —  at least, so far —  has made a show of looking tough, without pointing toward systemic reforms to the way millions of dollars are doled out in contracts.

At the last two meetings, the committee members questioned staff about the way services are procured, sometimes harshly. But whom they’ll interrogate has been unpredictable. They didn’t ask about many sole-source providers’ credentials nor verify other quotes. On Tuesday, they rejected contracts that had gone through an open bidding process, without providing clear direction on the alternative they’d prefer.

And in the one case where they did ask for more data comparing New Haven to other school districts, they approved the contract without getting it.

Barbarotta Grilled

At Tuesday’s meeting, the facilities manager, Joseph Barbarotta, asked the committee to vote to renew 11 contracts for next year. They were all for “on-call” repairmen, who submit prices ahead of time in an open bidding process to fix any emergencies that the school’s maintenance crew couldn’t handle itself.

Some of the agreements cover lock-outs, plumbing backups, shattered glass, crackly speakers and broken sidewalks. In total, the 11 renewals would draw $555,000 from next year’s operating budget and $560,000 from the capital project fund. Six of the businesses are locally based; one is female-owned, one minority-owned.

All of contracts went out to bid in an open, city-run process, where contractors submit a pre-determined rate for responding to emergencies. After factoring in a bonus for local businesses, the city’s purchasing agent calculates who’s the lowest bidder — effectively, getting the cheapest rate ahead of time, rather than scrambling at the last minute to find someone.

When costs exceed $10,000, that bidding process is required by city ordinance. The Board of Education chooses to allow a one-year renewal if the contractor doesn’t raise prices.

“The reason we have ‘on-call’ contracts, to make it clear, is because that bidding process takes literally months to do,” Barbarotta explained to the committee. “That’s why we’re doing it now. We have 54 contracts, and we do half of those as renewals.”

Frank Redente, the committee chair, said he couldn’t approve them with the looming budget cuts. “As of now, I can’t pass this here, due to the fact we have such a deficit,” he said.

“Shouldn’t we go through each of these one at a time to see what they impact?” Barbarotta asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Redente said.

“I appreciate your position, and I want to do what I can to help. But these contracts, I want you to realize what they do,” Barbarotta pled. For instance, he said, “if we don’t do controls on our HVAC system, then we don’t have heat or air conditioning.”

“He said we’re not going to do it,” Jamell Cotto, the board’s vice-president, responded. The full board could take up debate about the contracts this coming Monday night, he said.

Cotto then asked Barbarotta to come up with a different, “out-of-the-box” process. Cotto suggested that Barbarotta should ask for a couple of quotes right when an emergency happens, exactly how Cotto said he does it at the not-for-profit he runs.

But that process could limit the district’s business to a small group of insiders, add delay and possibly run afoul of the city ordinance, Barbarotta argued.

“I’m troubled to hear that we, the New Haven Board of Education, the most costly department probably, can’t figure out a way to get people to bid for emergencies,” Cotto said.

“That’s what this is,” Barbarotta interjected.

“No, let me finish,” Cotto said. “That’s unacceptable. We should be able to figure out a system in place, where we say who’s going to fix this emergency for the smallest price, because budgets are drying up. It doesn’t make sense that you can’t put something like that out to bid.”

“Again, this is a bid process,” Barbarotta tried once more. “I think there’s some confusion.”

“I think we need to come up with a new process,” Cotto said. “We hold the negotiating power, and we’re asking you to use that.”

He added that he also wanted more guarantees the work wouldn’t be sub-contracted out without the school district’s knowledge.

Redente moved to table all the contracts, which happened. He said the staff should bring fewer contracts next time. “It seems like we’re getting this stuffed down our throats,” he said. Redente added that he planned to talk privately with Barbarotta and with his colleagues “in regards to what our decision is going to be,” before announcing whether the contracts would go through at a future date.

Putting Spending Back On The Table

Right after, Board of Ed President Darnell Goldson reminded the committee to revisit a $35,000 contract for Sergio Rodriguez, a former Upper Westville alder and the state’s former educational manager for foster youth.

Two weeks ago the committee tabled the item, which would hire Rodriguez to coordinate with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), relatives and community groups to provide better services to homeless and foster youth. The finance committee that night tabled the item because the administrator making the request didn’t have ready quotes on a reasonable salary for the liaison, any data on the number of foster youth in New Haven’s schools or any comparison to how other Connecticut cities look out for their orphaned and unsheltered children.

At the full board meeting a week later, Jill Kelly, a parent representative from NHPS Advocates, a new group fighting for transparency in the board’s decision-making, raised more questions. “How do we know there’s 600 couch-surfers, but we can’t figure out” how many kids are in foster care in city schools? she asked. “DCF won’t share this information?”

When the matter came up again this Tuesday night, the committee went ahead without getting all the answers it had originally asked for.

Gemma Joseph-Lumpkin, the district’s youth, family and community engagement director, did bring in a spreadsheet with the number of homeless youth in each grade, where they stay and how often they are marked absent, the same numbers she provided a month ago. But she didn’t have any data on foster youth to share. She also reached out to Hartford and Bridgeport to hear about their programs, but she didn’t hear back before the meeting.

That still didn’t explain why Rodriguez needed an extra $7,000 from the operating budget to do the job, beyond the sum already covered by a state grant, especially given the district’s current deficit.

Joseph-Lumpkin had already won a $40,000 continuation grant through the state’s McKinney-Vento program last month to fund the services for homeless students. Of that money, $28,879 was planned to go to Rodriguez’s contract. (The grant also pays $3,500 to a part-time student worker, $5,066 for supplies, $1,000 for professional development, and $1,255 in indirect costs.) In the grant application, Joseph-Lumpkin indicated that the district did not need to provide any matching support.

Goldson, who served with Rodriguez on the Board of Alders, said that, after a conversation with Joseph-Lumpkin, he realized the district was required to establish a point of contact with DCF. He and other committee members also noted the urgency of aiding the “staggering” number of homeless children: 676 who lack permanent housing, 41 percent of whom were marked chronically absent.

“We don’t have a choice here; we really have to have this service right away,” Joseph-Lumpkin said. “We’re working on ways with the city to figure out how to go to an RFP [a request for proposals] moving forward, but we want to ask, in this urgent situation, that we move forward in trying to support these families as quickly as possible.”

The committee recommended approving the expenditure.

In addition, the board recommended approval of the following grant-funded items:

  • $92,984 to Area Cooperative Education Services (ACES), a local non-profit, to provide two courses of professional development. At Truman, over 77 days, and at Hillhouse, over 53 days,  ACES will help principals, instructional coaches and teachers understand the state’s standards for math and literacy, particularly when to intervene for failing students. Paid with federal grants for school improvement, the contracts go to the state-designated educational center for the region.
  • $38,250 to Focused Schools, a San Francisco-based turnaround consultancy, to coach building leaders at Truman and Hillhouse for 20 days. Paid with federal school improvement grants, the contract was awarded to a “sole-source provider” without a bidding process.
  • $26,667 to Shine Early Learning (SEL), a New York-based consultancy, to draft a Head Start grant application that meets the fed’s new performance standards. Paid with the last of the Head Start grant funds that SEL obtained five years ago, a new grant could continue funding pre-K slots for 700 kids.
  • $12,000 to Donna Lillas, an independent EMS instructor, to certify 10 students as emergency medical technicians. Paid with state after-school funds, the contract is a renewal after all but one student passed last year’s state exam.
  • $4,800 to Bulldog Tutors to provide two SAT prep classes for 30 Wilbur Cross High School students across 48 sessions. Paid with state after-school funds, the program was previously used at Hillhouse, though Principal Glen Worthy recently suggested switching to Extra Yard, a new college-prep program started by an alumnus, for 18 sessions at $13,500, before withdrawing his proposal.
  • $2,700 to hire Stephen Updegrove, an independent pediatrician, to serve as medical director for Lincoln-Bassett and Riverside Academy’s school-based health center to meet licensing requirements. Paid with grant funds, the cost essentially covers his liability insurance premium.
  • $2,435 to Common Ground New Haven Ecology Project to provide 23 life science-based field trips for Barnard Magnet School students. Paid with state magnet funds, the package includes farm visits, hikes and workshops.

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posted by: 1644 on February 22, 2018  7:26pm

Sorry, but these BoE members sound like idiots.  These maintenance contracts are “requirements contracts”, where, through bidding, the buyer gets a set price for a service regardless of how much he needs.  When the heat goes, you don’t want to be failing random numbers in the phone book.  You want to know who to call, that they will respond, and that you will get a fair price.  That’s what the contracts do.  They have already gone through a formal bidding process.  They should be approved.

posted by: WildwildWestEducator on February 22, 2018  8:26pm

Facilities are not where these no educators who have been chosen to make decisions should start. You are.  It in a classroom with no A/C or No heat. You are not around when the ceiling leaks or the bathrooms are clogged, these things are taken care of by the outside contractors because the custodians don’t have time during the day because 1 full time and 1 part time contractor are covering 90,000 square feet including breakfast and lunch rotations. Don’t get me started on the mold and dirty vents in the schools, leave this alone and let them through. This is just a portion of how we can make sure we keep the schools functioning.

posted by: duncanidaho645 on February 22, 2018  11:07pm

They for sure are on the right track. 

http://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/amp/City-aide-tipped-police-in-Barbarotta-case-7943299.php

You can be sure that there is some funny money in every contract that these guys handle. 

http://www.ctpost.com/local/amp/Barbarotta-accused-of-muscling-into-Sandy-Hook-11017723.php

Here goes the owner of the company that manages the City’s school facilities profiting from dead children…..

This company was brought in to bust the custodian union and because they are tight with Malloy.  Now that the custodian union is no more (they now have a pension that pays less than social security and exists only so they can float the pension fund) and Malloy is on the way out there is no longer a gun to the City’s head. 

Time to dump these clowns.  Their job could be done in house for half of the cost and by a legitimate company for maybe 75%.  New Haven can no longer afford corruption.

posted by: 1644 on February 23, 2018  1:16am

Duncan:  How is the Al Barbarotta mentioned in your links related to the Joe Barbarotta in this article?  Is Joe not a school employee, most likely civil service and even union?
BTW, Malloy wanting to bust a union seems unlikely to me: he the most pro-union governor we have ever had, from union construction jobs to UConn grad students to SEIU home health aides, he has promoted unions and collective bargaining, not to mention SEBAC.

posted by: 1644 on February 23, 2018  1:21am

Okay, got it.
http://afbcm.com/aboutus.htm
But the discussion wasn’t about a decision to hire AFB, it was about the subs AFB would used for emergency work: HVAC, plumbing, electrical, etc.

posted by: Newhaven1234 on February 23, 2018  9:38am

Rarely do I comment, though I felt compelled after seeing this article - The level of complete ignorance of how a bid process works is alarming -  The ask by a board member to come up with “an out of the box” option for a new process regarding the contract bid process is clearly an indicator of the overall lack of qualifications here.  By way of the bid process, you are in control of the contract you select based on the variables you find necessary to meet your objectives that were included when it when out to bid -  to include the price you will pay. If you don’t like what one company is offering, you go to the next proposal -  This board is simply ill equipped in skill set -  If this is the BOE we are stuck with, then I highly recommend making an investment in a class or workshop in basic business principles and understanding of contracts, bids, RFPS -  And for those that result in attacks in the comment section, I will level set in advance -  Yes, I had a student graduate from NHPS, said student attends one of the best schools in the US, and yes, I have significant business experience - Statement made, as it is often easy to attack and indicate one might not know what they are talking about - Our students deserve better - period.

posted by: Sarah.Miller on February 23, 2018  1:01pm

Our kids need a Board of Education that puts them first. This requires expertise in the field of education and no more personal or financial conflicts of interest. Sign the petition https://www.change.org/p/peoplesboardofeducation.

posted by: duncanidaho645 on February 23, 2018  1:38pm

John Destefano wanted to bust the union not Malloy.  The more private companies involved the more kickbacks can be generated. 

Malloy gave these guys weight because he had input into how much the State dished out to the BOE.  Hire them and receive more funds from the State to cover them.  It’s a win for the City in a sick sort of sense until Malloy is no longer governor. 

About the contracts discussed in the article, AFB has proven that they cannot do business in a legitimate way.  The have gotten pressure in Stamford for gearing required qualifications for contracts to only fit the company they want.  This is the way you skirt bidding rules.  Once you have the company you want, one that will “play ball,” you start paying them for work that was never done and writing change orders to include more work.

The BOE is on the right track like I said, but requiring this work to be bid piecemeal is not the solution.  Also what they are doing is asking the problem to solve itself which is clearly not going to work.  You need to remove the management company and bring the work in house.

posted by: 1644 on February 25, 2018  8:09pm

Stamford has fired AFB, but gone with another private management firm after considering and rejecting doing everything in-house.
https://www.stamfordadvocate.com/local/article/AFB-is-out-Stamford-board-hires-new-facilities-10973210.php
Contracting out allows for more competitive labor rates, whereas in-house labor would subject the BoE to the state’s mandatory binding arbitration rules and civil service rules as well.