School Board Says No, Tell Us More

Christopher Peak PhotoMarkeshia Ricks PhotoA new push for accountability in the Board of Education’s multi-million-dollar contracting process led members to table multiple items at a committee meeting, including funding for a new program for foster youth run by former Alder Sergio Rodriguez.

At the board’s Finance & Operations Committee (F&O) meeting this past week, a school administrator requested $7,000 from the general fund to hire former Upper Westville Alder Sergio Rodriguez to coordinate services for students in the custody of Department of Children and Families (DCF). But the administrator didn’t have ready quotes on a reasonable salary, any data on the number of foster youth in New Haven’s schools nor any comparison for how other Connecticut cities look out for orphaned children.

Without that information, three board members said they felt uncomfortable approving the contract, and they tabled the salary appropriation.

That veto last Monday afternoon at 54 Meadow St. was presented as the start of a new way of doing business at the F&O, the panel that reviews all the district’s contracts and grants: scrutinizing their details and promoting competitive pricing, rather than no-bid contracts. The new move arises amid questions about how the board has been approving contracts.

Joined by Darnell Goldson, the board’s new president, Frank Redente and Jamell Cotto, the committee co-chairs, grilled staff about the procurement process and tabled at least two more items.

The first casualty of the increased oversight was Rodriguez, the state’s educational manager for foster youth.

Christopher Peak PhotoGemma Joseph-Lumpkin, the distrcit’s youth, family and community engagement director, had requested $35,000 for Rodriguez to serve as a point of contract with DCF, as the school system tries to hone its programs for homeless and foster youth.

“As a matter of fact,” she said at the meeting, “we have zero idea how many of our kids are in the foster care system. We could be talking about 500 or 2,000. A big part of this is to figure out where they are and what their needs are.”

Under her proposal, most of the money, $28,000, would come from the federal government’s payments for services to the homeless. But another $7,000 would need to come from the district’s operating fund.

Goldson, who previously served alongside Rodriguez as an alder, asked how he’d been picked for the role.

“We need to do more around the RFP [request for proposal] process,” Joseph Lumpkin said, referencing a way to solicit competitive proposals from highly specialized providers. “But we needed someone who can get this work off the ground running. Sergio did extensive work with DCF and foster-care students.”

That wasn’t the answer Goldson was looking for. He suggested cutting the extra $7,000 from the contract.

“We don’t know how many kids we’re gonna get anyway,” Redente added.

“Let’s at least have a baseline to know if we got something,” Goldson said. “Otherwise, if we got 50 kids, and he says, ‘That’s what it was,’ we can’t do anything else about that. But if other towns have already done this and have [up to] 400 kids, that’s a big difference. He’s one guy.”

Joseph-Lumpkin said she’d look into what Hartford and Bridgeport were doing and get the board members answers at their next meeting.

Goldson said that transparency about the process would protect both the district and the contractors themselves.

“This is not a reflection on [Rodriguez], just like other questions on contracts. In order to protect them from bad press that comes out of this thing, we need more information about how this process works. And I have a real issue about this coming to us, especially after those articles came out that have painted us as pushing grants to political friends, to sit up here and say okay with it,” Goldson explained. “Sergio is a good friend of mine; it doesn’t reflect on him. I don’t want him to be a victim of this. I need a better idea of what process we’re going to use in the future before I could say yes to this.”

Redente suggested tabling the entire contract, which the committee did.

The committee also tabled two grant-funded items at Barnard, and they held up a software program until they heard from a district employee who arrived late to the meeting.

The committee did recommend the following items for approval, which will be sent to the full board on Monday night:

  • $200,000 for Tucker Mechanical, Inc., to inspect and maintain boiler and water pumps.
  • $90,000 for Elm City Montessori to pay for staff at the charter.
  • $80,250 for Columbia University’s Teachers College to support curricular development and instructional coaching at three schools: Edgewood, Davis and King-Robinson.
  • $79,513 for Concrete Creations to fix broken mains and sewer back-ups at two schools, plus install a new drainage line, relocate bleachers and power-wash mold.
  • $60,000 to Encore Holding to fix frozen sprinklers at five schools.
  • $54,825 for Yale University to support three extra-curricular programs and develop a design lab at Bishop Woods.
  • $33,475 for Public Good, LLC, to paint murals and design installations at Martinez that reflect the school’s new magnet theme.
  • $25,000 for Middlebury Interactive Languages to provide 500 licenses for online instruction in Chinese, French and Spanish.
  • $5,900 in pass-through funds for Hillel Mandel to offer a seminar on “differentiated learning” for Yeshiva Godlah Rabbinical Institute’s faculty.
  • $5,215 for Reaction Distributing, Inc., to install platforms for new trash compactors.
  • $2,500 for a translator, Miriam Reyes, to rewrite special education students’ learning plans in Spanish.

The committee also recommended accepting $384,911 in state funds for summer school, shifting $300,000 from the operating budget to a state grant for an ACES’s program for 40 at-risk youth, and fixing $24 in math errors in the amount for daycare seats.

Open-Meeting Laws Ignored

At one point, the committee debated nixing all items that drew from the general fund. The three board members discussed the idea in a private confab that may have violated the state’s open meetings law.

Concerned about the running budget deficit, which will widen to a $19 million gap next year, Cotto suggested the committee table all items that weren’t grant-funded. “When you’re operating in a deficit, when we don’t know what the state is going to give us, and when the state’s not answering our questions, that’s not a good thing,” he explained later. “We can’t forecast what’s ahead, so we’re trying to find ways” to limit expenses.

For four minutes, three board members and two staff members debated the plan’s merits out of public view.

According to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), all discussion between a board’s public officials must be open to the public, with only a few exceptions. The law does exempt caucuses, where members of the same party discuss how they want to vote before the meeting begins, said Thomas Hennick, the Freedom of Information Commission’s education officer.

Since the school board is composed entirely of Democrats, they might have been covered by law if only board members had participated in the discussion. But Cotto also asked Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, and Typhanie Jackson, the district’s student services director, to join the chat outside.

“In my opinion,” Hennick said, “it would not be a caucus then.” The caucus exemption only applies with members of the “same board, same party,” he explained.

Cotto said he wasn’t trying to hide anything.

“Everything was shared at the meeting,” he said in a phone conversation after the meeting. “We as a team, we have to go into a meeting knowing what we’re going to talk about. That’s just common sense.”

He added, “We were transparent. That’s what it’s going to be moving forward.”

The meeting may have also violated FOIA’s notice provisions. For all meetings, whether for the full board or just a committee, an agenda must be posted at least 24 hours in advance. But the most recent F&O agenda didn’t go up online until shortly after 5 p.m. on Friday evening — over an hour short for Monday’s 4 p.m. meeting.

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posted by: 1644 on February 12, 2018  9:12pm

I am confused.  Is Rodriguez trying to get the city to pay him to do what the state is already paying him to do?  Is he presently employed by the state as its manager for foster youth education, I would think part of managing their education would be coordinating with local schools. Or is he withholding knowledge he gains on his state job from the city until the city pays him?

Overall, a good start, but I fail to see the urgency of some of these purchases, such as murals.

posted by: Srodriguez on February 12, 2018  9:40pm

1644,
The NHI has inadvertently misrepresented my current employment status with the State. My position with the State was eliminated in May of 2017.
[Ed.: Sorry about that! Thanks for the clarification. This contract would be independent of a state agency.]

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on February 12, 2018  9:50pm

yes. what is with the murals?

If this is all about transparency, can someone please tell us who is the person behind “Public Good LLC”? Was there a bidding process? Is the owner doing the actual art work? Or is it being sub-contracted out?

posted by: Jim425 on February 12, 2018  10:11pm

Even though some members of the Board of Education are elected does the state statue regarding “minority representation” still stand for the unelected members?  It would seem that the Board is illegally constituted if all the appointed members belong to the same political party.

posted by: Christopher Peak on February 13, 2018  2:46am

AverageTaxpayer & 1644,

The installations at Martinez are funded through the Magnet School Assistance Program, an $11,716,769 federal grant at four schools from 2016-19. At last week’s meeting, Michele Bonanno, the grant coordinator, said the installations will help “integrate” John S. Martinez around a theme — a way “to market and brand that school in order to attract a diverse group of people.”

Public Good, LLC, is a design firm founded in 2005 by Alaina Driscoll, a Branford consultant. In the past, she’s done projects for The Nature Conservancy, New Haven Farms, Citywide Youth Coalition, the Capitol Region Education Council, and Brazi’s Italian Restaurant. Bonanno listed Public Good, LLC, as a “sole-source provider.”

posted by: darnell on February 13, 2018  7:17am

Chris, I wish I could stretch a dollar like you stretched the truth here, I would be exceedingly rich.

The facts are that the discussion at the door wasn’t a “illegal” private meeting, it happened in the view and earshot of the public, which is why you were able to take pictures and listen in. I was walking into the meeting through the one and only door to the room and those guys were standing there asking Will Clark a question. I stopped to listen, as did anyone else who wanted to do so. It wasn’t t in a closed room and did not exclude anyone.

Second, it wasn’t even a board meeting. A quorum equals 4 members, there were only 3 present.

If you keep sensatilizing these simple chance encounters, eventually no on e is going to take you serioulsy, except the extreme fringe conspiracy nuts.

Please stop crying wolf.

posted by: Brian L. Jenkins on February 13, 2018  7:29am

I applaud these board members for displaying a level of hesitancy by tabling these items for further research.  I also applaud the work that Sergio provides and the price tag that both he and Gemma have negotiated.

posted by: 1644 on February 13, 2018  7:37am

“...we have to go into a meeting knowing what we’re going to talk about. That’s just common sense.”
The Board’s agenda should state what its members are going to talk about.  Or, is Cotto does mean they need to decide what they are going to say?  The purpose of open meetings laws is to allow the public to see how and why agencies arrive at the decisions they do.  This goal is undercut by the caucus exception, but should still be adhered to when possible.

posted by: 1644 on February 13, 2018  8:02am

Mr. Peak: Thank you.  It would seem that Bonanno, and the board, are misusing the “sole-source” provider description.  In federal contracting, a sole-source means that only one vendor can provide the good or service.  Usually, it applies to repair parts, where one needs to get a specific part which has only one certified manufacturer, such as going to Pratt & Whitney for jet engine fan blades, etc.  In isolated areas, it might apply to sone services, such as, “Dr X is the only board certified child psychologist in Windham County.”  I doubt, however, that Public Good is the only firm that could do this work.  The board, and the public, deserve an explanation of why, out of the universe of design firms, this firm was selected. (I am having fun thinking of Bill Saunders design for an entrance, a design echoing his breast cancer awareness display. :))

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 13, 2018  9:11am

Jim425, I don’t think so, although this is not my field. The minority party representation law (CGS Sec 9-167a) does not apply to any board “whose members are wholly or partially elected on the basis of a geographic division” of the municipality. This is true for the Board of Ed.

Several of the approved items are nuts and bolts (in some cases, literally). But I don’t understand the funding for training the Rabinical Institute’s staff. It also strikes me as odd that the BOE is paying Yale for the training it provides. It would have simpler for Yale to provide the training and count it against its contribution to the city.

posted by: Christopher Peak on February 13, 2018  9:21am

Darnell, as you showed up late, you missed the part where, at 4:08 p.m., Jamell called Frank, Will and Typhanie into the hallway. They did not bump into each other, by chance, on the way in. They left the room deliberately, away from the public’s earshot.

You are correct that I went over to take a picture. But the rest of the observers did not have access to the discussion about how the committee planned to vote on the $877,000 in contracts up for review. I couldn’t even catch most of it, standing a few feet away. I only found out what happened later because I asked Will after the meeting, texted you that night and called up Jamell multiple times before he answered on Friday.

I also wondered about quorum and asked Thomas Hennick, of the FOI Commission, about it last week. “Conceivably it could be a violation of FOI, quorum or no quorum,” he said. A meeting, after all, is defined as “any hearing or other proceeding of a public agency.” The absence of a full majority on any one committee doesn’t exempt it from the rules.

Regardless, I have to ask, is quibbling about the strict letter of the law what you meant by vowing transparency last month? Let’s work together in thinking of ways the board can be more open in its communication, not set up exemptions to hide behind.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on February 13, 2018  11:01am

“But I don’t understand the funding for training the Rabinical Institute’s staff.”

The money was never the New Haven’s, just passing through as the federal government funds private institutions.  It comes under Title IIa and ESSA if you want to learn more about it.

“It also strikes me as odd that the BOE is paying Yale for the training it provides. It would have simpler for Yale to provide the training and count it against its contribution to the city.”

Or to provide it pro bono in recognition of Yale’s status as one of the wealthiest institutions in the country and the sad irony of charging its hometown, one of the poorest cities, for education services.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 13, 2018  12:35pm

Jill, thanks. I knew that the feds fund certain services at non-public K-12 schools, but was unaware of this provision.

posted by: darnell on February 13, 2018  1:03pm

Chris,

As you said, I arrived late, and did “bump” into those folks on the only doorway leading into the room. It was a doorway, it wasn’t closed, and anyone was welcome to stand there and listen to the discussion that occurred BEFORE the meeting started. There was not a “debate out of public view”.

You say that Jamell summoned Frank and 2 staff members to the doorway, I’m not sure if that occurred the way you reported or if it did why so, nitnit seemed to me that when I arrived, they were simply asking questions regarding process. My suggestion was to hear the presentations and make decisions based on each ones merits, we all agreed. I was inclined for all of less than 2 minutes.

If you had reported the facts as they were, in other words it was not a closed meeting out of public view, I would not be quibbling with the merits of your story. Your attempt to raise a controversy that does not exist is of course a way to add “flavor” to the story.

Report the facts, is was a doorway confab of less than 4 minutes. It’s the same as walking down the hall to the meeting room and having a discussion, nothing more.

posted by: duncanidaho645 on February 13, 2018  1:27pm

You are not here to represent your “team.”  You are here to represent the people and children of New Haven.  Shame on you.

posted by: 1644 on February 13, 2018  3:19pm

Kevin:  Are BoE members elected based on districts/wards, like the Alders?  I thought they were all at-large, which I would think would mean a minority requirement.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on February 13, 2018  11:18pm

1644, the two elected members represent districts (I can’t find the map, but my recollection is that one represents the northern half of the city and the other the southern half.)

posted by: Billy on February 14, 2018  8:37pm

I was there.  Jamell Cotto absolutely summoned Frank Redente and Will Clark into the hallway.  That is definitely how it happened.  I saw it with my own eyes.  Great job getting the picture and reporting it Christopher!  This is one of many reasons why the parent transparency group has my full support.

On a related note, Jamell Cotto talked with Frank Redente through the majority of the student report (read by Dr. Jackson-McArthur), and talked through most of Will Clark’s budget presentation, at the Board of Ed meeting on Monday night.  Again, saw it with my own eyes…and heard it with my own ears, as they he was sitting two rows behind me.  I found his behavior patently disrespectful.

And, not sure what’s up with this Cotto, Redente, Goldson clique…but we have our eyes on you.