Bring In The Consultants

Christopher Peak PhotoSchool board members recommended paying consultants over $15,000 to facilitate their next Board of Education retreat — right before another consultant reported that the district is still facing an $8.89 million deficit this fiscal year.

The consultants’ messages were delivered to a Board of Education’s Finance & Operations Committee most recent meeting at Celentano School, where members accepted over $7.73 million in new grant funding, gave the thumbs-up to $298,000 in contract spending (including for the retreat facilitator), and put one $581,000 agreement on hold.

Facing a budget crunch, the two finance committee members present, Jamell Cotto and Darnell Goldson, put tough questions to almost every presenter about how contractors were picked and what results were expected — except when it came to the consultant for their own board.

They asked why Lincoln Bassett wanted to pay teachers stipends for after-school tutoring, rather than find college kids. They asked how many internships a new district-wide vocational training coordinator would create. And they tabled a half-million-dollar contract to develop magnet school marketing materials because they wanted to see enrollment numbers from the past three years.

But the board members didn’t ask any questions at the committee meeting, which was held last Monday evening, about Leverett Consulting, the New Jersey-based contractor who’d be paid $15,650 in general funds to facilitate their next retreat, scheduled for Nov. 17.

The item was listed on the agenda as “for information only.” Because the agreement is for less than $20,000, Superintendent Carol Birks can automatically enter the contract without the board’s approval.

In a memo to the Finance & Operations Committee, Birks called the expense was justified because the consultant’s fees seemed “reasonable and consistent with other contractors.”

The money will pay two consultants: Larry Leverett and Kaili Sanderson.

Leverett previously worked as a superintendent for 15 years in Greenwich and two New Jersey cities, and in 2014, he chaired the transition team for Hartford’s incoming superintendent, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez, Birks’s former boss.

Sanderson previously worked as the managing program director for the Teach for America’s New Jersey chapter, and she’s now a professor at American University.

The two consultants say they will need to put in a full week’s work to prepare for the Board of Ed’s one-day retreat. They charge $118.75 an hour.

Leverett submitted a budget that included a two-hour conference call to begin planning ($475), a day-and-a-half review to look over the district’s documents ($2,8250), another two-hour conference call to set the agenda ($475), a three-day session to hammer out the retreat ($5,700), a day-and-a-half review to edit the superintendent’s presentations ($2,850).

He also requested $1,400 for travel and lodging to cover the trip to New Haven.

At the retreat, the consultants said they plan to generate feedback for the superintendent on her recommended district goals, develop a strategy for ongoing monitoring of those goals, and finalize the board’s own goals for itself.

Leverett also offered additional follow-up support after the retreat for two on-site days with the superintendent, top central office administrators and school board leadership.

In May and July, Leverett hosted two other board retreats. Over those days of candid discussion, the board smoothed over a strained relationship with the new superintendent who they’d been “undermining,” as one board member put it. 

That happened most visibly when five school board members ripped into Birks for sending dismissal letters to 1,153 part-time employees, calling the move a “stumble” and ordering her to reverse the decision at a press conference where Birks was noticeably absent.

Emails later revealed that board members had also been giving Birks directions behind the scenes, overturning her decision to suspend a student from going to prom and telling her how to manage her time.

At the most recent retreat, the board members said that they wanted to reach a balanced budget with regular financial reporting, set academic goals with regular data reviews, streamline operations, build talent and engage families and other stakeholders.

The board hasn’t formally revisited those goals at any of its subsequent meetings, though they did hear presentations about the budget deficit and standardized-test scores.

Asked why the district needed a five-figure consultant for its retreat, Goldson said he thought it was an important “follow-up” from the board’s last retreat, “assisting us with developing board goals and district goals for the next year.” Still, he added, the price is “a little higher than expected.”

Goldson said he thinks that the contract might be pulled before the full board meeting on Tuesday because an illness at the consultancy means the work won’t be finished in time for a mid-November retreat.

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posted by: 1644 on November 13, 2018  8:12am

Is this retreat open the general public?  Or is it an illegal meeting?

posted by: Patricia Kane on November 13, 2018  8:13am

If the Board and Superintendent want to improve their working relationship to the point where they can use their own expertise to design a retreat, I suggest they use Community Mediation services.
  The ongoing use of outside consultants for Ms. Birks debut and now a retreat, undermine the appearance of competency.

posted by: Noteworthy on November 13, 2018  8:55am

And the Band Played On Notes:

1. The deficit has grown since the last report, since the last financial report to the city’s inept budget office.

2. This was predicted. It was $8.4 - now, it’s $8.9 million and it will get higher.

3. There was never and there is not now a plan to mitigate that deficit. When you start a school year with an unbalanced financial plan - you will end up with one. And taxpayers will be xxxked again.

4. Meanwhile, back at the ranch - the spending continues. New consultants are hired and everybody is happy including Member Mayor Harp who didn’t like that her $5 million increase to the NHPS got whacked and reallocated during the budget debacle that handed taxpayers her $30 million tax hike.

5. But by design, Harp will still get the money and more for the schools through benign neglect and a planned deficit. Sneaky. Dishonest. Again.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on November 13, 2018  9:53am

M-I-C, K-E-Y, .. M-O-U-S-E!

posted by: 1644 on November 13, 2018  10:16am

Noteworthy:  I believe NHI has reported that Harp plans to cover the BoE deficit with the debt service “savings” created by the scoop and toss maneuver.  Of course, this plan has not been presented to the Alders, let alone approved by them. I expect harp will, once again, wait until the last minute and ask for approval when other options, such as actually reducing the BoE budget as legally required, are no longer possible.

posted by: JCFremont on November 13, 2018  10:26am

A retreat? It better not be any farther than By the Sea in Branford actually how about The Omni Hotel. On your poll how about an “Absolutely Not” choice.what the heck does No Retreat keep fighting mean? If a company was going through financial upheaval, or near bankruptcy and the stock holders got wind of plans for a Palm Springs retreat what would the reaction be?

posted by: FacChec on November 13, 2018  11:23am

@1644 Actually the plan has been submitted and approved by the BOA.

“To avoid paying the bills, the city wants to use a controversial practice known as “scoop and toss.”

Essentially, the city “scoops” up a load of debt that it owes now and “tosses” it years away. The problem, for whomever has to handle it later, is that the debt is now far bigger in size.
Think of it like maxing out a credit card and taking out another one to pay it off, then waiting several years before you get around to dealing with the old expenses.”
three alders — Board President Tyisha Walker-Myers, Majority Leader Richard Furlow and Third Officer Aaron Greenberg — sit on the city’s five-member Bond Sale Commission alongside Mayor Toni Harp and city Controller Daryl Jones.

Amendment approved:

The proposed amendment notes that $10 million could be taken out of the debt service line item because “Debt Service is projected to be under budget for FY2017-18 due to the August 2017 refunding/restructuring.”

That August 2017 refunding freed up roughly $31.8 million in the FY18 city budget by scooping up some of the year’s existing required debt payments and tossing them a decade into the future.

posted by: RobotShlomo on November 13, 2018  11:25am

Good lord, this level of grift is almost cartoonish. I’m about to use a dated reference here, but who’s running the Board of Ed, Boris Badenov?

posted by: formerNHIT on November 13, 2018  12:23pm

I never understood why these retreats occurred in the past.  It makes little sense.  I think in the past once they all flew to the West coast somewhere.  The problem is even if they somehow make progress and good work is done it looks bad to the taxpayer.

My opinion:  This is poor use of taxpayer funds.  Even $15k.. and this will not include all the expense reports that will be submitted by the administrators.

They could likely pay a full year for a junior teacher on what they will spend on this retreat.  Why not so the retreat at Gateway HQ?  It would cost almost nothing..

posted by: observer1 on November 13, 2018  1:09pm

No retreat, no lunch, no donuts, no coffee, no expense, Use one of the schools to host the meeting. We are broke and can not afford any frills.

posted by: 1644 on November 13, 2018  1:56pm

Fac: I know the BoA approved the scoop and toss bond issue.  Did it approve the increase to the BoE’s budget?  In other words, is the BoE no longer running a deficit?

Robot:  Boris was a patriot, true to his motherland.

All: Where are these"retreats” held?  The Branford BoE holds a retreat, too.  The idea is to have a more relaxed atmosphere and free flowing discussion than in a formal meeting.  Of course, to comply with FOIA, they retreats are noticed like any other meeting. The normal location is the chairman’s living room, which dissuades some attendees, those reporters have been know to show up.  I don’t think any consultants are involved in planning.

posted by: RetiredGuy on November 13, 2018  2:24pm

I’ve facilitated my share of retreats for non-profits over the years, and never has the total cost come anywhere close to $15,650.  The problem is not the consultants’ hourly rate, which is reasonable, but all the pre- and post-work they’re charging for.  This is a one-day event, not the invasion of Normandy. 

Get out your shears, boys and girls.  Some sheep are about to get fleeced!

posted by: Dennis Serf on November 13, 2018  2:37pm

We just filed the below FOIA request with the City. The City has not been forthcoming with other requests we’ve filed, and as a result, last Friday we filed a complaint with the CT State FOI Office.

Dennis Serfilippi

Good day Ms. Foster and Mr. Grotheer -

The New Haven Independent (NHI) is reporting the Board of Ed is planning a retreat; the link can be found at the end of this email. I would like to attend the retreat. In an effort to understand when and where the retreat will take place,and the purpose of the retreat I am respectfully requesting the following information:

1.Notice of the date, time of day, and location of the retreat.
2.A copy of any Agenda and/or list of topics to be held at the retreat
3.A budget of the total expected cost of the retreat.

This is an URGENT request as the news media is reporting the retreat is scheduled for this Saturday November 17th. Please confirm receipt of this email, and please let me know when I may expect to receive the documents.

Thank you,
Dennis Serfilippi

posted by: RobotShlomo on November 13, 2018  2:55pm


He also once famously said “government is like having license to steal”.

posted by: 1644 on November 13, 2018  3:35pm

Robot: Are you sure you’re not confusing Badenov with Mayor Harp?  That’s seems more in character with someone who charges personal expenses like her coffee and lunch to her employer.  Or perhaps I just misjudged Badenov’s character.

Dennis:  Good move, but I hope Ms. Foster is connected with the BoE?  Remember, the BoE is legally separate from the city, so a request to the city is not a request to the proper body.  Personally, I would write Goldson & Birks.

  I note no BoE meeting on the BoE’s posted annual schedule.
This means that any retreat would be a special meeting, and the BoE would need to strictly adhere to a specific agenda.  I do hope NHI sends a reporter.

posted by: FacChec on November 13, 2018  4:14pm



Look again at your own link…:

I note no BoE meeting on the BoE’s posted annual schedule.

November 13* 26
December 10

Geez man

posted by: 1644 on November 13, 2018  4:33pm

Fac: I was speaking in the context of a meeting on the November 17th.  Obviously, there are other meetings scheduled, but no meeting for Nov. 17th, which is what I thought we were all talking about.

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on November 13, 2018  8:06pm

Children’s education is deprived to pay for executive convenience and plum crony contracts.

You say students, I say first, huh?

posted by: Noteworthy on November 13, 2018  8:58pm

Retreat from this waste of money. If you need s retreat to learn to collaborate and act like adults, we don’t need you on the BOE. Love this guys travel expense….1400 .... where’s he coming from? Egypt?

posted by: Dennis Serf on November 13, 2018  10:53pm

I would like to thank Mr. Goldson for providing a speedy, thorough, and candid response to my FOIA request. Please see below for his reply.

Dennis Serfilippi
Thank you for the email Mr. Serfilippi,

We have had several “retreats” this year, which are actually meetings with the purpose of planning for the district. All of those meetings are open to the public, noticed like any other meeting, along with an agenda.

The meeting referenced by the NHI was originally planned for Nov 17, and was a follow up to our other meetings, to complete the planing for goals for the district. Unfortunately, several events have occurred which have caused this meeting to be canceled.

1. The facilitator has fallen ill,
2. We have not approved the funding for the facilitator.

I understand that the article was written to sensationalize a meeting, to make it appear to be a lavish activity with a high price tag. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the article did accurately report, this board had been focused on reviewing all expenditures with a fine tooth comb, by asking many questions and on occasion not approving questionable expenditures. We have tightened the belt and have reduced the deficit from over $20 million to $8 million. And we are not finished.

This BOE has been extremely transparent in its operations, more so than previous boards and any other commission in the city. I appreciate your interests in the BOE, and welcome you to attend our twice a month Finance and Operations committee meetings (1st and 3rd Mondays), as well as our BOE meetings (2nd and 4th Mondays).

Of course, I am always available to answer any concerns you may have.

Thank you.
Darnell Goldson

posted by: Dennis Serf on November 13, 2018  10:54pm


Also, BTW, our last “retreat” was held in the cafeteria of one of our schools.

The fact is that we are not having a retreat on Nov 17, we did not approve a contract for a facilitator , and we currently do not have a budget for a retreat. Additionally, all of our meetings, including retreats have been publicly noticed, and any info related to them (budgets, agendas) are public information.


posted by: Mike Brown on November 14, 2018  9:39am

First. I’m a consultant so I may be biased. But a board retreat with just board members is akin to incest. Outsiders are needed to strengthen the discussion.

posted by: AverageTaxpayer on November 14, 2018  10:02am

LMAO! Retreat cancelled.

Thank you to whoever blew the whistle on this farce!

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on November 14, 2018  10:40am

“Outsiders are needed to strengthen the discussion.”

Well, librarians are needed to support student learning.  Guidance counselors are needed to support student well-being.  Field trips are needed to expand students’ experiences.  Textbooks are needed.  Repairs are needed.  After-school programs are needed.  Small class sizes are needed.

Something has to go, and the “need” to strengthen a one-time discussion among a handful of adults is a reasonable thing to sacrifice.  I am relieved that funds will not be spent on this.

posted by: loquacious truth on November 15, 2018  12:18pm

15,000.00? For a retreat? The High School proms cost $15,000.00. What kind of retreat is this? New Haven wonders why they have budget issues.