After emotional pushback on tough questions about how public money gets spent, two controversial no-bid contracts advanced — with a promise that answers will come before the Board of Education’s final vote.
At stake are programs that enlist veterans and street-savvy outreach workers to help troubled kids.
The questioning took place at a spirited two-hour meeting of the Board of Education’s Finance & Operations Committee at the school district’s Meadow Street headquarters.
Committee Vice-Chair Tamiko Jackson-McArthur led the questioning, as school administrators asked for permission to move forward with $537,000 in grant-funded contracts.
Two of the items almost didn’t make it through. The committee hesitated over a $150,000 contract with Integrated Wellness Group to run Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support (VETTS), which pairs gang-involved youth with military veterans for mentorship, and an $85,000 contract with New Haven Family Alliance to run the Street Outreach Worker Program, which mediates conflicts between teens before they can escalate to gun violence.
Jackson-McArthur questioned why those two agreements looked as though they were being rushed toward approval — at a time when the responsible department chief went out on maternity leave and a city-run bidding process could be readied to accept alternative proposals. She also asked who was profiting and whether the money could have gone to other services.
Jackson-McArthur said that the vendors should provide “those clarifications before we move this out of committee.”
Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, disagreed.
Eventually, after Integrated Wellness Group agreed to send in answers, both Jackson-McArthur and Goldson recommended moving all the items to the full board for a vote next week, the second time they’ll be up for consideration.
Jackson-McArthur dug in on Monday night by asking why the VETTS program was being renewed again without proof of the program’s effectiveness — a question that parents and other board members have put to the group at several meetings. In response, the vendor said it might be better to quit doing business with the school system rather than be subjected to questioning.
Last year, VETTS cut its hourly rates down from $75 to $45. That doubled the amount of time mentors had inside city schools. Yet VETTS reached barely one-third of the number of students it had reached in years past.
Over 3,100 hours, VETTS saw 57 students, according to available data.
Of those, three students graduated, seven were accepted to a pre-college program at Gateway Community College (that was already being expanded after the alternative school consolidation), four retained jobs and ten applied for summer gigs, the organization reported.
With those numbers, Jackson-McArthur asked if the schools needs the program to continue at current levels.
Her facts weren’t exactly right: She asked why VETTS was being “expanded” this year; the contract is actually for the same amount.
After she realized her mistake, Jackson-McArthur asked why the schools weren’t providing Integrated Wellness Group’s mental-health screenings instead.
Maysa Akbar, Integrated Wellness Group’s executive director, said they hadn’t been asked to perform the screenings.
Then, Akbar asked if the district even wanted to continue working with her psychology practice at all.
“We’ve had a really longstanding, great relationship for many, many years, and it’s unfortunate that, over the last year or two, some things have gotten misconstrued,” Akbar said. “There’s discussion about the fidelity and the quality of the work that we provide.”
“I have not heard that discussion,” Jackson-McArthur interjected.
“It’s in the paper almost every week. It’s a shame that that’s where we are,” she said. “If the board decides that the VETTS program and Integrated Wellness Group is not a good fit for this district, I am more than happy to oblige. I’ve been a good partner and sometimes good partnerships have to end.”
“Dr. Akbar, this is not a trial on you. This is strictly around services,” Jackson-McArthur said. “This is not based on feeling; this is all financial. That’s why we’re going to have a procurement process in place.”
Who’s On The Payroll?
The committee asked how much of the school district’s money has gone to the veterans themselves.
In recent years, the program’s mentors received just a portion of the $45 hourly rate that Integrated Wellness charged the school district. From that, the veterans were often paid between $14 to $17 an hour.
Integrated Wellness charged another $45 an hour for 100 hours of program coordination, case management and outcome reporting, along with a $5,000 flat fee for program materials.
“I’ve heard this several times: In your grant, you suggest that you’re going to pay vets one payment, but you’re actually paying them something different. Is that true?” Goldson asked. “What is the hourly rate for the vets?”
“I don’t feel that is an appropriate question,” Akbar said.
“I don’t know if I would agree with that, Dr. Akbar,” Goldson said. “This is public money, and we get from each contractor, the rates that they pay.”
“It’s not a law that prohibits me from sharing that information. I just feel that it’s an inappropriate question for this forum,” Akbar said. “But if you are saying to me, ‘That’s the question at hand,’ that’s what caused all of these questions around the fidelity of the program, then I don’t have any problem.”
Akbar said later that she will provide the hourly rates before the next board meeting.
By Another Name?
After Jackson-McArthur moved on to the next item, the meeting got even more heated, as more questions arose about whether Integrated Wellness Group is also picking up contracts through another organization: New Haven Family Alliance (NHFA).
Barbara Tinney, NHFA’s CEO for nearly three decades, recently retired from her role.
Still helping out with “grants management” until a replacement is picked, Tinney showed up on Monday night to explain the Street Outreach Worker program. She ended up leaving the Finance & Operations committee with questions about what’s happening behind the scenes at her nonprofit.
“New Haven Family Alliance is doing fine?” Jackson-McArthur asked Tinney at one point, almost as an aside. “You guys are full force and active?”
“The New Haven Family Alliance, at this juncture, is in the process of completing a strategic alliance with VETTS,” Tinney said.
“There is no relationship between the two services in our proposals,” Tinney went on.
“New Haven Family Alliance is joining the VETTS?” Jackson-McArthur pressed.
“At some point in the future. But right now, we’re talking about the strategic partnership.”
Under the new arrangement, Akbar will provide “executive leadership consultation” at no charge, while Tinney moves into an advisory role, according to a statement from the organizations emailed on Monday night. Akbar will also be the president of the board for the new partnership, the statement continued.
Later this week, the Family Alliance’s board of directors plans to discuss who will become the next CEO, multiple board members said.
Last month, in a report submitted to the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, Tinney explained that too much of NHFA’s revenue had been earmarked for specific expenses, hindering it from building up its “fiscal, administrative and programmatic infrastructure.”
The partnership with Integrated Wellness Group would create “a sustainable business model,” Tinney wrote.
Tinney said that the partnership developed out of a “business planning analysis undertaken by the NHFA Board of Directors.”
But who’s on the board is unclear.
In the same report for the Community Foundation, Akbar is listed as the chair of the Family Alliance’s board of directors.
Akbar said that she isn’t on the board at all.
“I am not a member of the New Haven Family Alliance board,” she wrote in an email. “I am not familiar with the documents you refer to, and I do not know why other board members believe I am on the board.”
Akbar did not respond to a follow-up email asking if she had previously served on the board.
Akbar and Tinney said that the board’s chair is still Dan Santos, a retired car salesman who’d previously held the position. Santos did not answer three calls and a text message to his home and cell phones on Monday night.
Aware of the shakeups at the nonprofit, city officials decided to put their own longtime contract with New Haven Family Alliance out to bid. They anticipated that the school district would work with them on reviewing proposals too.
But Tinney persuaded the Finance & Operations Committee on Monday that they could bypass the process and stick with NHFA.
Since 2007, NHFA has run the Street Outreach Worker program. That work was a foundational part of Youth Stat, the Harp administration’s initiative to put students in danger of dropping out or being locked back on track to graduate.
Concerned about NHFA’s finances, Jason Bartlett, the city’s youth services director, said he felt he needed to send out a request for proposals (RFP). He wanted to see if another organization might be able to expand the program’s reach, particularly by connecting with local hospitals.
“We knew that there were concerns about the sustainability of this program with New Haven Family Alliance,” Bartlett said. “At this juncture, it’s just the responsible thing to do. We’re happy to partner with [the Family Alliance] going forward, but they need to respond to the RFP. If we put it out to bid, we get a better product, more accountability, and we make sure that we’re getting our money’s worth.”
At the beginning of the fiscal year, Bartlett told the Family Alliance that he’d be paying month-to-month until a new contract was awarded.
He also asked school officials to hold off on awarding any agreements and join in the competitive bidding process, which they agreed to do in a joint $174,000 contract.
When Jackson-McArthur asked about the bidding on Monday, Tinney said that the city’s procurement process had nothing to do with the schools.
“I was told that this was going out to bid,” Jackson-McArthur said. “I was told that this shouldn’t be on our list.”
“I’m not 100 percent sure what the means,” Tinney said. “I do know that the City of New Haven is recommending the Street Outreach Worker program go out to bid. This is separate from that. We are still in conversation.”
Goldson said that he also hadn’t heard that the contract was going out to bid. He said that the board still hadn’t updated its procurement policies.
“At this point, this is our money. We haven’t, as a board, decided to put this out to bid. We’re using the same process that we use for all of our other professional services contracts at this point,” he said. “I think that’s probably where the confusion comes from. The city money is being bid out. That makes sense: It’s their money, they can do what they want to do with it,” Goldson said.
Bartlett said he hopes that the board will table the contract at its next meeting.
“It was my understanding that the BOE was going to allow the procurement process to go forward. Maybe there’s a miscommunication, but the RFP on street outreach is for the BOE and the City,” he said. “I hope that the City and the BOE continue to do the work together to award that contract so we’re all on the same page in this important work with disengaged and disconnected youth.”