Integrated Wellness Drops Bids For More School Business

Christopher Peak PhotoA contractor is pulling its business with the school district, after being subjected to questioning by a finance committee earlier this week about controversial no-bid contracts.

Integrated Wellness Group, a for-profit psychology practice in Westville that has been awarded at least $1.4 million worth of no-bid contracts over the last four years, most of it under former Superintendent Garth Harries, said it’s withdrawing from all present contract negotiations with the school board.

In an email to Superintendent Carol Birks and Board of Education President Darnell Goldson on Thursday afternoon, Maysa Akbar, IWG’s founder and executive director, said her company is done working with the schools.

That meant immediately pulling a $150,000 contract for Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support (VETTS) that the board planned to take up on Monday.

The school board has begun more closely scrutinizing “sole source” contracts that have traditionally gone out without bids. Akbar’s have become the most visible example of that scrutiny.

At a Finance & Operations Committee meeting on Monday, board members asked Akbar to provide a report on the effectiveness of the VETTS program and to disclose the average hourly pay that its workers received. VETTS is a nonprofit arm of Integrated Wellness. (Read more about that here.)

Near the end of Monday’s meeting, Akbar asked the committee members if they think Integrated Wellness Group is still “a good fit for this district.”

“Emotionally, having to be on what feels like a witness stand, being tried and sentenced, maybe we’re just not a good match anymore. Maybe you want a different kind of services. Maybe we’re not providing what you want,” she added later. “I’ve got a lot of lives I have to worry about, and this really affects them. Maybe I’m tired, tired of fighting maybe. Let me just go places where people really like what I do and enjoy it and want to bring me back year after year.”

In Thursday’s letter, Akbar said that she felt her reputation was “being unfairly and repeatedly called into question.” She said that the board’s current procurement process is “excessive and unequitable,” because there are no clear guidelines for contract awards nor clear expectations for program outcomes.

In the past, Integrated Wellness Group has paired troubled youth with mentors from the armed services, evaluated teens in mental-health crises, ran after-school reading programs and evaluated pre-kindergarten teachers.

Dwain Schenck, a spokesman for Akbar, said in an email on Thursday night that Integrated Wellness Group would also be pulling a program called Rapid Access to Therapy from contract negotiations.

Integrated Wellness Group and VETTS might not pick up any contracts themselves going forward, but it might still find school district business through another entity.

VETTS has entered what’s been described as a “strategic partnership” with the New Haven Family Alliance, and the Family Alliance is still trying to win school business, including an $85,000 contract for a Street Outreach Worker that the board will consider on Monday.

“To the best of Dr. Akbar’s knowledge, the current New Haven Family Alliance contract is still awaiting Board of Ed approval and her decision is not connected to its outcome,” Schenck wrote in the email.

President Goldson did not respond to an email on Thursday afternoon, and Superintendent Birks did not return a phone call on Thursday evening.

IWG “Cannot Continue”

Here is the full text of Akbar’s letter:

Dear Dr. Birks and President Goldson,

This letter is my formal notice to inform you and the Board of Education that Integrated Wellness Group and VETTS are withdrawing from all contract negotiations with the Board. This decision was made after painstaking consideration and soul searching. Both Integrated Wellness Group and VETTS will continue to provide our community with the highest quality of innovative services and dedication which we are known and respected for. For me it has come down to having a moment of truth and realizing that the position I have been put in by the Board of Ed and contract procurement process has become untenable and cannot continue.

As the CEO of a women and minority-owned psychology practice, there is always an expectation of quality, effective and evidence-based services with the foundation of cultural responsiveness and competency. At present, my reputation is being unfairly and repeatedly called into question. I have made the decision to take action to put an end to the harassment and defamation.

Ten years ago, I began a path to de-stigmatize mental health for everyone, especially people of color like myself. This path led me to have some amazing people on my team that are in alignment with the goals set forth.

On our journey, we have established extraordinary relationships and partnerships, quantitative and qualitative results, and an overwhelming impact on the clients we have served and continue to serve. The decisions I make as the leader of many will always be in the best interest of those we serve and my incredible staff.

In my view, trying to manage the contract process you and the Board endorse has become excessive and unequitable. The contract process is disorganized and fraught with unclear guidelines surrounding the contract procurement process, lack of procedures to measure and evaluate program outcomes, and unmanageable delays in payment that can last 120 days or more. All of these matters hinder important service delivery to our most vulnerable population — our children and youth.

We will continue to work in our community, nurturing and building positive collaborative partnerships. We will move forward in our mission to advance the fulfillment of emotional wellness for everyone.

Thank you for your time and understanding in this matter. I wish you all the best in your endeavors.

Very best,

Maysa Akbar

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posted by: LivingInNewHaven on December 7, 2018  9:09am

So when asked to provide information on how public dollars are spent, after receiving over $1 million from the BOE over the years, you just respond by dropping the contracts all together and fussing about waiting 120 days for payment and something about a reputation…..Telling.
Watching the progress on the procurement process that Dr Joyner is designing.

posted by: westville man on December 7, 2018  9:25am

“Thank you for your time and understanding in this matter.”  How about “thank you for supporting my business all these years”...  yes,  it’s a business.

posted by: observer1 on December 7, 2018  9:45am

Akbar is trying to run a business, and has goals to meet and employees she is responsible for.

The following quote is telling “She said that the board’s current procurement process is “excessive and unequitable,” because there are no clear guidelines for contract awards nor clear expectations for program outcomes.”

The BOE wants accountability but does not want to put forward the specific items it wants in requests for quotes. In fact, they have not wanted bids in the past because they do not have the ability or vision to define what they want in a bid request. It has been comfortable to have Akbar brought in to participate in a general discussion, and then let Akbar tell the BOE how to achieve the results they seek. It was not the decision of Akbar to have no bid contracts issued, and it is definitely not her job to write a bid proposal after listening to the BOE tell her what they think they want. I think what Akbar is saying to the BOE is; get your act together, have someone put together a bid proposal defining what you want, publish it, and then I will be happy to bid in the open on it with other vendors. What Akbar pays her employees is not the business of the BOE.

posted by: Paul Wessel on December 7, 2018  9:53am

Boards should hold staff management accountable.  When they start mucking around with individual contractors and individual employees, way more often than not you end up in a morass of confusion. This is especially true when board members have relationships with contractors or are contractors themselves. 

What often ends up in these kind of situations is that you drive good contractors and staff away - because they are competent they can find other contracts or employment - and you end up with mediocre, politically-connected performers. 

I have no idea whether Integrated Wellness is competent or not.  And it’s not clear whether New Haven’s kids are left better or worse off by the outcome of this process,  And that’s worrisome.

posted by: Gary Stewart on December 7, 2018  10:47am

Wow! For once I agree w/ ” Living In New Haven.” I see that what they pay their employees was mentioned and hope that my previous comment re: being an experienced, licensed clinical social worker and being told they pay in the $20 - to $25 per hour range ( anything under $40 is an insult)  had something to do with bring that to light. Re: Maysa Akbar’s comments , ” Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”

posted by: 1644 on December 7, 2018  12:45pm

None of us have any idea if IWS is competent, because IWS refuses to provide any evidence that they are.  They, and Goldson are playing the petulant victim card with the “women and minority-owned” nonsense.  So what if Clifford Beers and Comer got their contracts just renewed without scrutiny?  Just because the BoE let those renewals slip by doesn’t mean that they cannot start asking for accountability with IWS.  As for relying on Birks and her staff to vet these contractors, it’s pretty clear that Birks is afraid to breath unless the board gives her permission to do so.  Both the city and the BoE spend a lot of money trying to reach troubled youth.  It’s a worthy cause, but that doesn’t mean that every expenditure toward that goal, whether it be the Escape center,  Mets tickets, or IWS, or Clifford Beers, is an effective expenditure of limited tax dollars.

posted by: newhavenishome on December 7, 2018  1:45pm

IWG should be able to provide some sort of measurable outcomes regarding the population they provided services to regardless of whether the NHBOE ever asked for them or not.  Yes, NHBOE and New Haven Office of Procurement have been derelict in not providing guidelines and measures for contractors, but any provider dealing with at risk populations should be self monitoring treatment plans to determine success.  It shouldn’t be too hard to provide that data in some type of format to the Board. Frankly, it is an opportunity for IWG to guide the conversation regarding measures in a way that puts them in the best light.  They should be jumping at the opportunity to prove their effectiveness. They should easily be able to state what it is they provide NHPS that no one else can.  I am thinking they just don’t have any data at all. If so, that tells you all you need to know about their services over the years.  Phone it in and collect the checks from the City.

posted by: AnnieMac on December 7, 2018  6:19pm

My daughter suffers from PTSD and attended high school in New Haven.  She was anxious about going to school.  A counselor from Integrated Wellness contacted us.  She came to the house and met my daughter at school the next day.  We were so hopeful.  Then the counselor cancelled the next 7 appointements in a row.  No one cared or would help.  Moreover, no one ever asked us if we were satisfied with the services from Integrated Wellness.  Good buy, good luck and good riddence.

posted by: NHPS411 on December 9, 2018  11:25pm

The Board Treated Dr. Akbar Like S…t At the Last Finance Meeting. It’s Really Sad How They Treated Her. I’m Glad She Won’t Work With This BOE and District Anymore. These People Are Nothing But Full Of Straight Politics. This Just Proves That They’re Not In The Best Interest Of Our Students.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on December 10, 2018  3:34pm

Whenever our tax dollars are spent, all of the spenders are obligated to be transparent and accountable for the reasons for the expenditures and must make sure that the money is used wisely and efficiently.
The entirety of city government, as well as the Board of Education, must be held to that standard.
Integrated Wellness Group has made over a million dollars over the years from contracts with the BOE. The public has a right to know what measurable benefits have resulted from their work with our students, & how many students they have served.
If Integrated Wellness has done well by the students they were expected to serve, show it, prove it, publicly.
There was a proposed new board contract for $150,000 with this group that some board members and many members of the community questioned and challenged. The BOE spends so much money to have outside contractors do things that the public believes should be done by New Haven Public Schools staff. We have all these people with all kinds of degrees with experience and expertise who receive six figure salaries. Why are we employing so many outside contractors?
For example, why should we pay $25,000 to Kaplan to teach SAT classes to 75 kids in ONE school? Don’t we have teachers that can do that? Why pay MORE THAN HALF A MILLION to ACES to help recruit suburban students to our magnet schools? Can’t some people already working in central office do that?
We have schools and personnel devoted to at risk youth. Why in New Haven do we need Integrated Wellness?
Some things just don’t make sense!
A fool and his money are soon parted! It appears that the BOE has foolishly spent a whole lot of our money!
Rather than face scrutiny, Integrated Wellness pulled their contract. Good!
Now we have an extra $150,000 to spend more wisely on real needs for our kids like a few more school counselors, nurses, paraprofessionals, librarians, & more computers and other learning resources.
Let’s stick with common sense & things proven to work.

posted by: Truth is Truth on December 12, 2018  7:11am

To: Thomas Alfred Paine and Others on this Blog

There are varied comments and ideas being expressed out of ignorance, which demonstrates lack of knowledge about grant usage. Linda Hannans, the District’s grant manager, gave an excellent presentation at the recent BOE regarding the purpose and use of the varied grants received by NHPS.

The grants cannot be used to supplant what the system by law has to provide. For example, some of the grants—Title 1, Alliance etc, can be used to support literacy and math improvement in the form of coaches, some supports for social emotional learning and culture and climate—it cannot be used to pay existing teachers to do the job—it cannot be used to pay nurses who work for the city and are paid by the city—not NHPS, and it cannot be used buy textbooks (this would be supplanting). All grants have clear guidelines that have to be followed. If the monies are not spent they go back to coffers of the state and federal government. All grants are written in collaboration with the grantees who then approve the way the funds are spent.  You can do all the probing and questioning, but this will end up short changing the district of needed funds.

As it relates to the goals from NHPS, would you rather have none? It is good to have goals to anchor your expectations. We do not all achieve goals we set, whether personally or professionally, but this doesn’t prevent us from setting them.  Sarah Miller—the goals presented are the ones for the internal accountability—all stakeholders will be participating in the strategic operating long term plan—this was what I heard at the BOE meeting. I hope you will be there to lend your expertise.