The Board of Education had too many unanswered questions to hand out $260,000, so it tossed three contracts back to a committee — along with a plan for vetting other no-bid contracts in the future.
School board members reversed course on the contracts at their twice-monthly regular Monday evening meeting at Celentano School.
After the public voiced loud complaints about the process and a board member proposed new guidelines for bidding, the board members unanimously voted to send the three contracts back to the Finance & Operations Committee for another look rather than vote on them Monday night.
The committee will review the allocations of $150,000 for Integrated Wellness Group’s Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support (VETTS), $85,000 for New Haven Family Alliance’s street outreach worker, and $25,050 for Kaplan, Inc.’s test prep.
Those contracts had gone before the finance committee for review just last week.
At the time, members of NHPS Advocates, a watchdog group, emailed in concerns about the contractors’ qualifications, past results and even errors in math. But none of their questions were raised during the meeting. (Read more about those questions, and some of the answers, here.)
The committee chair, Jamell Cotto, explained that he didn’t have enough background on the contracts to know what he wanted to ask. Schools Superintendent Carol Birks said that she didn’t have any direction from the board to decide whether the expenditures were worth continuing on her own.
That led to an outcry at this week’s board meeting.
All seven parents, teachers and retirees who rose to speak during public comment said they felt that the school’s leaders were ignoring citizen concerns. Especially as the district stares down an $8.89 million budget deficit, they argued, all questions from the public should be taken seriously.
“You all are public servants. You represent us, but that doesn’t mean you act alone. That’s why all of us come here, week after week, session after session, to give our views and opinions,” said Robert Gibson, a former teacher at Hillhouse High School. “We don’t want darkness in New Haven, and we are all here to keep the light on all of you.” He added, “We want our voices heard.”
Other educators said that it felt paradoxical for a school system to discourage anyone from trying to learn about the district’s inner workings.
“When a question is asked, it’s a sign of respect. It shows the questioner wants to hear the other person’s voice and perspective. It shows the questioner cares enough to want to know what they don’t know,” said Jessica Light, a third-grade teacher at Worthington Hooker. “Please value all voices by respecting all requests for information, because a request for information is a request for education.”
New Rules Pitched
The NHPS Advocates have had a tough time getting information about contracts for months. While they weren’t able to come up with a better process in the meantime, one board member proposed new rules on procurement that could solve part of the problem.
At almost every meeting this year, someone from the Advocates has read off a list of questions submitted by their membership.
For a while, school officials posted paragraph-long responses to the questions online. But in late April, Superintendent Birks said her staff no longer had time to keep responding.
“I think we’ve been very transparent about providing information when people ask,” she said. “But I do not have someone to write back dissertations, because some of the questions are very detailed.”
Birks added that people could schedule a private meeting or attend a monthly coffee conversation to get an answer.
Board member Joe Rodriguez argued that didn’t address how to handle the questions “that are posed from this podium to this board” that no one currently follows up on.
After 15 minutes of of back-and-forth about who should be responsible for providing answers — the school board or the superintendent’s administration — everyone agreed that they’d have to revisit it at a future meeting.
Right after, board member Ed Joyner proposed a series of changes to the district’s bidding process, including some reforms to proactively disclose the information that now repeatedly comes up in the Advocates’ questions.
After studying the issue for several months, Joyner said that the district needs a policy that could cover the entire process, from the initial selection of a contractor to the rigorous evaluation of results.
“The problem that we have is that we don’t have a good protocol in place,” he said. “We need documentation of our procurement actions. We ought to be able to tell the public every single step we took to procure a service, right there for them to see.”
That could include forms that explain the purpose and scope of a program, the ways it fits into a systemic plan, the evaluation of the submitted proposals, the oversight of the program, and the impact assessment, he said.
Joyner said the district needs to toughen up its rules for who counts as a “sole-source provider,” a designation that allows contractors to skip any competitive bidding process.
“If we are receiving certain types of services, we need to be sure the person delivering them is qualified,” he said. “I don’t want someone fixing my toilet because they like plumbing. I want them to know something about plumbing.”
He added that the district needs to do a better job of thinking systemically about how all the contractors work together, rather than just looking at each expenditure as a one-off. He said that would require training for principals and assistant superintendents “to make sure we have a good program design that’s implemented faithfully and gets results.”
Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, chair of the board’s Governance Committee, said she plans to work closely with Joyner to pass an official policy.
In the meantime, Joyner recommended putting any contracts that can’t demonstrate results on hold — unless that delay would put grant funds at risk. “We say they have a ‘track record,’” he said, “so let’s find out what it was, whether it was effective at all.”
Late in the evening, after talking up their commitment to transparency, the Board of Education went behind closed doors for an unclear reason.
Members said they had to discuss the “employment of an executive level employee” — a vague descriptor that could apply to anyone with “administrative or supervisory authority,” from a high school principal all the way up to the superintendent.
No one would clarify which employee was being discussed or why, though the law does not require the board to use a specific name.
Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, did say they didn’t discuss hiring or firing anyone.
But when it came to getting any more information, it was the same run-around parents complained about earlier in the meeting.
Birks said to ask Goldson.
Goldson said to ask Birks.
“We’re not having this discussion right now,” Jarad M. Lucan, an attorney from Shipman & Goodwin who advises the district on legal matters, responded to a question about the legal basis for the executive session.
The New Haven Register’s Brian Zahn subsequently reported that the board was discussing a pending move by district Chief Operating Officer Will Clark to take a new job in Waterbury.
After nearly an hour of private deliberations, the board members returned to Celentano’s cafeteria at 9:30 p.m. to close out the meeting. Frank Redente and Cotto called in by phone; Joyner had already left for the evening.
Jackson-McArthur made a motion to “authorize the superintendent, Dr. Birks, to carry out necessary actions to finalize the matter discussed in executive session.” She said nothing further about what that involved. The motion passed 5-1, with Goldson dissenting.