The 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.
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.