Want A Contract? No Questions Asked

A watchdog group sent in questions about five school contracts worth $345,000 to a Board of Education committee. The committee didn’t pose any of the questions before advancing the contracts for approval.

After the meeting, we were able to get some (not all) of the answers.

The meeting was held Monday night by the Board of Ed’s Finance & Operations Committee at the district’s Meadow Street headquarters.

Twenty-nine agreements were up for review at the meeting. Jamell Cotto, the committee chair and the only board member who showed up, moved all the items on without a recommendation. The full board is scheduled to vote on them at its meeting next week.

Over the weekend, NHPS Advocates, a group of parents and teachers pushing for more transparency in the school board’s decision-making, reviewed a 281-page document that detailed all the latest business. This week, that totaled $250,000 in general-fund expenses, $1.28 million in special-fund expenses and $800,000 in new revenue.

The Advocates had major concerns about five of the agreements. They pointed out issues with vendors’ lack of results, inexperience, use of student data and extra fees. They even picked up on one mathematical error.

NHPS Advocates wrote up all the questions and emailed them to all the Board of Education members on Monday morning.

Cotto told the group members that he’d received the list. But he didn’t pose any of the questions to the presenters making their pitches. He praised some of the groups that the NHPS Advocates wanted answers from.

When NHPS Advocates organizer Sarah Miller, a mother of two at Columbus Academy, asked why he didn’t ask any of the questions submitted, Cotto accused her of being disrespectful, leaving three moms in attendance dumbfounded.

“It’s really frustrating and difficult to understand why questions submitted by the community wouldn’t be asked at all,” Miller said later. “Even without those, it’s really striking how little questioning there is of anything. There were no questions from Dr. [Carol] Birks [the schools superintendent] or Jamell [Cotto] about results. Is this working? What has it actually done for kids in ways that are measurable?”

Cotto said that the NHPS Advocates “don’t represent the entire parent body.” He added that they could still ask their questions during the three-minute public comment at the next full board meeting.

#1. Integrated Wellness Group: $150K

The biggest contract would go to Integrated Wellness Group, a psychology practice on Fitch Street run by Maysa Akbar, who served on the search committee that advanced Birks as a finalist to be the city’s next school superintendent.

For $150,000, the organization will run Veterans Empowering Teens Through Support, or VETTS, which pairs gang-involved youth with military veterans for mentorship.

Integrated Wellness Group has been criticized by board members in the past for providing limited evidence of results from their programs.

Once again, with a no-bid contract up for renewal, VETTS didn’t submit any performance data.

Cotto and Birks didn’t ask the group to provide any either, despite a question from NHPS Advocates.

“Last time a VETTS contract was approved, the Board discussed the lack of any evidence of impact by the program,” the parents wrote in the email. “It’s surprising, and disappointing, that no such evidence accompanies this request.”

Now in its fifth year, VETTS will be run by Kyisha Velazquez, Integrated Wellness Group’s associate director of community programs. She’s taking over from Michelle Kelly-Baker, the executive director who left the program after presenting to the school board less than a month ago.

The VETTS program focuses on at-risk kids: those in “YouthStat, facing expulsions, repeat suspensions, arrests, re-entry from juvenile justice system, re-entry from expulsion, chronically absent, using drugs, and demonstrating other high risk behaviors,” the group stated in a write-up.

After receiving a referral, VETTS matches the young people with honorably discharged service-members who have been trained in “crisis support,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez said she’s most proud of the low recidivism rate among the program participants. She said that fewer than 6 percent have been jailed for another crime.

That looks lower than the baseline among youth offenders statewide. Connecticut’s teens had rearrest rates of 32 percent within six months, 52 percent within a year, and 77 percent within two years, as measured in 2012, while significant reforms to the juvenile-justice system were underway.

But it’s unclear if the calculations match up.

The organization excludes youth who “discontinue services” from its calculation. Sometimes, they stop going because of incarceration. Of 116 youth referred to VETTS in 2016, for example, the organization excluded 12 who were locked up or ran away from its success rates, according to an annual report provided by Integrated Wellness Group. It also didn’t factor the duration of time since criminal activity into their comparison, and it’s also unclear if all the students had been convicted in the first place.

Velazquez said that Integrated Wellness Group is making an effort to better track its outcomes.

This year, the group contracted Derrick Gordon, director of research on male development at The Consultation Center, a Yale-associated hub for psychiatric study (whom Akbar recommended to the New Haven Police Department to run psychological tests on recruits). He plans to complete a study about the program’s efficacy, Velazquez said.

She added that she will also submit updates to the finance committee on a monthly basis.

Fewer Students Seen

Last school year, VETTS agreed to cut its rates from $75 hourly down to $45 hourly, doubling the amount of time with students to 3,122 hours.

Though the mentors were working twice as long, the program reported serving only 57 students, close to one-third of the 160 students who were served the year prior.

Of those, three students graduated, seven were accepted to a pre-college program at Gateway, and four found jobs.

Superintendent Birks said that she didn’t know how to judge those outcomes.

Birks said that she’s waiting for the Board of Education to pass procurement guidelines, before she starts evaluating contractors who’ve done work with schools in the past. She explained that she doesn’t want to single anyone out, when all the district’s programming could use a review.

“For six years, no one looked at the history —  along with other groups, not just Integrated Wellness. There are other groups like Alive! and New Haven Family Alliance and Comer [School Development Program] and others who also have been historically with the district, and we have not measured them in that way,” Birks said. “Out of fairness to them and all the other groups, as a district, we need to establish a process, and we intend to.”

Birks added that she trusts that Integrated Wellness Group’s programs, based on its “well-established research” on trauma.

“Based on what I’ve read about the organization, what they’ve presented to us and what I’ve heard from other districts that they’ve worked with, not like every data point, I believe that they’ve had some success in helping the lives of young people,” she said. “From a data standpoint, I can’t cite for you every program, every child they’ve worked with. I just know that they have a well-researched team.”

This year, VETTS has been contracted to do the same amount of hours. They are not yet sure how many students they will serve, Velazquez said, though she guessed that the number would be between 75 and 150 kids.

Beyond results, the NHPS Advocates also asked how the contract’s payments are structured.

VETTS will be paid $4,500 for administrative overhead, like case management and outcome reporting, as well as $5,000 for program materials and supplies. But the organization has also said that it deducts a portion of each mentor’s $45 hourly rate to fund those same costs.

“The last time a VETTS contract was approved, it was mentioned that the veterans themselves receive just a fraction of the hourly rate paid by the district,” the advocates wrote. “Is it also appropriate for them to receive $4,500 for program administration?”

Part of the $45 hourly rate goes to administrative overhead, mileage reimbursements, food and activities with the kids, Velazquez explained.

About a dozen veterans are currently on staff, Velazquez added.

“We keep them engaged, even though we don’t have funding. They come back and a job is a struggle, so we keep them on the payroll,” she said. “They’re ready to go.”

VETTS is run as a non-profit, separate from Integrated Wellness Group, Akbar has noted previously.

Yet the influx of cash from the Board of Education hasn’t been logged on any of its federal tax returns.

For the past three years running, the organization has listed no program revenue at all, despite receiving at least $47,262 from the city Youth Services Division in 2015-16 and hundreds of thousands more in school contracts.

Cotto didn’t ask any questions about the contract. He said he had seen the VETTS program up close, when he was involved in the initial roll-out of Youth Stat, the Harp administration’s school-based intervention that targets high schoolers at the greatest risk of dropping out.

“I know the impact it has on curbing adolescent risk behavior,” he said. “Thank you for the work.”

#2. RISE-ing To A Challenge: $17,500

NHPS Advocates also questioned four other contracts, including one for $17,500, funded by the RISE Network. It would go to the Higher Heights Youth Empowerment Program, Inc., to provide a full-time college advisor for Hill Regional Career High School, supplementing the school counselors that have been thinned out by layoffs district-wide.

Last year, Jay Muhammad helped 101 students with their college applications, 92 with financial-aid and 73 with scholarships. He also aided in coordinating the school’s first “signing day” and eight college trips.

NHPS Advocates questioned whether Muhammad is “qualified to provide services normally performed by licensed counselors,” because he does not have a bachelor’s degree himself.

In an phone interview Monday night, Muhammad that he’s currently working toward finishing his studies in education. He added that he received a week-long training in the college application process.

“I kind of felt lost” at that time, Muhammad said. “I work well with the kids. Personally, I have a lot of experience with high-risk kids. I can sit with you one-on-one and talk about what to do.”

 Cotto asked what will happen if the funding runs out. Zakia Parrish, the school’s principal, said she is trying to tap into an alumni network to connect more students to the college experience.

#3. “Future School Leaders”: $70,000

For $70,000, provided through the Wallace Foundation, the district will develop a partnership with the University of Connecticut to prepare “future school leaders,” readying principals for instruction and family engagement.

“We’re trying to build a pipeline,” said Paul Whyte, the assistant superintendent in charge of the grant.

NHPS Advocates asked about why the district was participating in the study. “An agreement usually requires both parties to give something. What is NHPS contributing to this project?” they wrote. “Will NHPS student or teacher data be used in this study?”

School data may be collected, such as size, demographics, graduation rates, attendance and test scores, Whyte said. “If any is collected, it will comply with data privacy guidelines,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “No student identifiable data would be used.”

#4. An ESUMS Sum: $107,935

For $107,935, through capital funds, the architecture firm Svigals + Partners is putting the final touches on the construction of Engineering and Science University Magnet School. 

It is designing a lock-down security system; buying and moving around furnishings; adding a sliding gate and a large sign at the Boston Post Road entrance; and fixing up other mistakes.

NHPS Advocates asked about who’s footing the bill.

William Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, said it depends on why the changes are needed. If the contractor didn’t follow the original plans, it is on the hook. But if the school asks for something new, it has to pay for the redesign.

In a few cases, where railings, barriers, pipes and ramps weren’t installed correctly, the subcontractor will have to reimburse for the remedial designs and engineering services.

“This kind of stuff happens all the time,” Clark said. “Some of the stuff is not being used the way it was designed.”

He added that the district has a “track record” of finishing projects under budget. 

NHPS Advocates also asked about some of the “excessive” fees, like $15,000 a sign design and $44,000 for construction administration.

Clark said that the sign out front will be “more than just the school name, but also the school identity.” He said that it will be a “large feature … prominently visible from Route 1” that will require blueprints for structural footing, lighting and other detailed specifications that can be bid out in a construction contract.

Clark added that construction oversight by the design team is “an industry standard,” making sure the project sticks to the plans and specifications. “In this case, the project duration was extended in large part due to substantial rock blasting and excavation in the very beginning,” not a delay by the contractor, he explained.

#5. Hey, Bulldog

At no additional cost, Bulldog Tutors will lengthen its SAT prep at Wilbur Cross High School to 90 minutes.

NHPS Advocates pointed out that the new rate looks like a “math mistake.” “To scale $150 [hourly] up to 90 minutes, the per-session cost should increase to $225, not $250,” as the contract reported, the group wrote.

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posted by: Noteworthy on November 20, 2018  10:52am

Head is In It Notes:

1. Jamell Cotto should resign. His comment to this group of hard working parents is disgraceful and disrespectful. His performance and lack of candor and questioning are other reasons he should resign. This is a pathetic example of public service.

2. And where exactly were the other board members? Off on vacation?

3. As for Will Clark and ESUMS - excuse me but that project is already over budget. It went from $55 to $85 million. Remember?

4. As for VETTS and Integrated Wellness - A renewal with that level of performance is undeserved. If you can’t prove your worth, you’re wasting money - money that frankly, Birks et al should know they don’t have. They’re running a $9 million deficit. And growing.

posted by: observer1 on November 20, 2018  11:20am

Asking the taxpayers to rollover on contracts of this magnitude without any support documentation is arrogant at best, and tells the story of what these folks think of the people paying the bills. It is time to clean house.

posted by: nero on November 20, 2018  11:22am

Shameful. New Haveners want our kids to have the finest public education, but flocks of greedy vultures feast on taxpayers’ good intentions. Is there anyone on the Board of Education or City Hall to ensure that funds go to teachers in the classroom, where it does the most good? Apparently not.

posted by: 1644 on November 20, 2018  11:46am

She said that fewer than 6 percent have been jailed for another crime.

That looks lower than the baseline among youth offenders statewide. Connecticut’s teens had rearrest rates of 32 percent within six months, 52 percent within a year, and 77 percent within two years, as measured in 2012, before significant reforms to the juvenile-justice system.

Apples and oranges here, comparing incarceration to arrests.  In any case, as the author notes, there have been “reforms” to the criminal justice system, particularly for youth, that lead to fewer prosecutions and far fewer incarcerations.

posted by: beaverhills on November 20, 2018  2:10pm

Kudos to NHPS Advocates for reading the documentation thoroughly and posing these questions. Mr. Cotto, while they may not represent all parents, NHPS parents want the best for their children, and thoughtfully considering contracts before approving them is an important part of improving and sustaining NHPS. I hope you and the rest of the board will learn from the work NHPS Advocates is doing and adopt the same critical eye to our district.

posted by: robn on November 20, 2018  2:44pm

My personal fav….
‘We have the lowest recidivism rate ... amongst those who aren’t re-arrested’

posted by: Blitheringidiot on November 20, 2018  7:37pm

Why not ask how much the district is paying for subs this year?

posted by: Jill_the_Pill on November 21, 2018  8:25am

“along with other groups, not just Integrated Wellness. There are other groups like Alive! and New Haven Family Alliance and Comer [School Development Program] “

This implies that IWG is not a sole-source contractor.  The programs described by Family Alliance on Monday sounded as if they offer similar one-on-one support services for at-risk students at a lower cost.  They don’t create employment for veterans, but that is not specifically NHPS’s mission.  Perhaps these services should be bid.

“Why not ask how much the district is paying for subs this year?”

Blithering, I will add that to NHPSA’s question list.