The city’s school facilities director has again failed to get 11 needed contract renewals past the Board of Education’s Finance Committee, leaving instead with a public dressing-down and an order to clean up rusty nails and black mold at Wilbur Cross’s pool.
The Finance & Operations Committee decided not to advance those 11 contracts for approval for a second time at its most recent meeting, held Monday afternoon at the Gateway Center on Meadow Street.
In recent weeks, the Board of Education has applied heightened scrutiny to companies asking for a share of the school district’s budget. Amid a budget deficit and questions about conflicts of interest and unproven results, the Board of Education is trying to overhaul its procurement process, if haltingly at times.
At the latest meeting, committee members grilled two contractors about their past performance, then arrived at two different outcomes. The facilities director couldn’t explain away photographic evidence of disrepair that his on-call contractors (selected as the low bidders) could have fixed, while a sole-source provider (selected in a no-bid process) was able to produce numbers to prove its impact on students.
Facilities Slips On Dilapidated Pool
After confusion at a previous meeting about the bidding process for on-call repairmen, the facilities director came prepared with an 18-page memo. But he wasn’t expecting what hit him, when Jamell Cotto, the committee chair, passed out pictures of Wilbur Cross’s pool and locker rooms.
Two weeks ago, the facilities director, Joseph “Pepe” Barbarotta, an AFB Management employee under contract to keep up the district’s buildings and grounds, tried to get 11 contracts past the committee. The contracts are all for on-call repairmen who submit prices ahead of time to jump on emergencies that school employees can’t handle. The committee tabled the request because, members said, they feared Barbarotta hadn’t gotten the best price during a budget crunch.
At Monday’s follow-up meeting, Cotto raised a second issue: performance. He said Barbarotta’s maintenance team wasn’t doing what it was paid for. “Who tours the schools to say this is unacceptable?” he asked. “Somebody’s not doing their job. It makes no sense.”
For the last 14 years, the Wilbur Cross pool was rented out to private schools. Cross students are now trying to restart a swim team there. But the building has fallen into disrepair. At the team’s first meet in December, the Independent reported that the pool had a broken circulation system, dampening the air with humidity and cracking the paint. On-site employees didn’t know how to work a scoreboard or a pool cleaner.
Cotto’s pictures showed the situation is even worse in the locker rooms. A chunk of ceiling had fallen through in one corner, bathroom stalls lacked doors, a sink’s faucet had broken off, showers had gone green with mildew.
“Oh, gosh,” Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, a committee member and pediatrician, said as she flipped through the pictures. “I am appalled at what you just showed me.”
“Something’s wrong with your lead man,” added Frank Redente, the committee’s vice-chair. “He needs glasses.”
“There’s mold. The sink’s broken. Do you know why? Because it was allowed to get that big,” Cotto said. “That shit has been sitting there.”
After that drubbing, Barbarotta argued that holding up the contracts wouldn’t help these types of issues get resolved. His team is already stretched thin across the district’s huge size, he said.
“We have 50 buildings with 4.2 million square feet, and we have 12 tradesmen. One plumber does all those schools. That’s what I have in-house,” he said. “There’s 11,000 work orders a year done by those 12 guys. If I have a contract to get more plumbing back-up, I can take care of problems in the bathrooms.”
Barbarotta added that he didn’t know about the problems at Cross’s pool. Unless the custodial staff or the principal submits a work order, it might not get his team’s attention, he said.
Cotto wasn’t buying. “The maintenance guy cleans every day, and doesn’t report it?” he asked. “Were there any work orders regarding what’s in the pictures?”
“I’ll have to check,” Barbarotta said.
“No one reported all the paint in the ceiling that’s fallen into the pool?” Cotto asked, jumping to his feet. “I can’t move ahead with these. I need time to further investigate what’s going on with work orders and why the needs aren’t being met.”
Jackson-McArthur agreed, saying she felt “uneasy” renewing a contract if she wasn’t sure about the current performance. The committee member said Barbarotta should start preparing to go out to bid again.
Cotto said he plans to tour other schools with his camera this week. Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, said he’d give Cotto copies of the blank work order form to fill out.
“I’d make a bunch,” Cotto told him.
Clark said that nearly all the repairs were made by Wednesday, except for repainting, which is going out to bid.
Evidence-Based: Not Enough?
One other contractor had to explain past work to the committee on Monday afternoon. In recent years, Clifford-Beers Clinic was hired to intervene with New Haven students showing signs of trauma, and the agency hoped to help social workers employed by the district reach even more students on their own.
At Monday’s meeting, the committee considered a proposal to direct $25,000 in federal grant money to Clifford-Beers to train 20 school social workers to administer an evidence-based group therapy on their own. The clinic would also provide 10 weeks of support during the social workers’ first run at the intervention.
Clinic representatives told the committee they have hard numbers to show that it’s worth continuing the intervention to help students with social and emotional problems, even if Clifford-Beers is no longer administering it directly.
Known formally as Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), the 10-week group therapy, for seven students at a time, was originally used by the clinic in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. So far, it’s showing promising results in an urban setting too, leading to a major drop in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to numbers presented by Kim Jewers-Dailley, the director of the New Haven Trauma Coalition.
Sue Peters, a district employee who coordinates the school-based health clinics, proposed expanding the intervention from 6 schools to 11 that get extra funding from the government for the high proportion of children from low-income families.
“What this group decided to do is build some internal capacity,” Peters explained. “We don’t even need to hire people to do this. They’re all licensed social workers at the school-based health clinics and schools together.”
Going in, students commonly described witnessing violence, like gang activity, fights, robberies and assaults; experiencing a relative’s incarceration; and seeing serious accidents, where someone was badly hurt or died. According to a 51-point test of PTSD symptoms, where 15 points represents the cut-off to make a clinical diagnosis, New Haven’s students averaged 27 points. After CBITS, their average score dropped to 16.3 points. The number of students below the non-clinical range shot up to 48 percent.
Students also showed a 7.8-day reduction in unexcused absences. About 40 percent of the students who were chronically absent before the intervention started showing up during that school year.
On the other hand, the intervention didn’t seem to affect 16 percent of the students in 2015-16 and 33 percent in 2016-17 — a number Clifford-Beers said it wants to push down to 10 percent.
The committee members didn’t ask about why those cohort didn’t succeed or how school social workers could hit that benchmark, but they did wonder whether the clinic’s program overlaps with Youth Stat’s other offerings, like Integrated Wellness Group’s crisis therapy.
“Are you getting their kids [into CBITS]? They’re supposed to be the highest, greatest needs,” Jackson-McArthur said. “Now, are those children going to be a part of this?”
Peters explained that the criteria for administering a clinical intervention for PTSD might be different from those for Youth Stat’s offerings. In 2015-16, Clifford-Beers screened 949 students, only 114 of whom qualified for the intervention. Peters added that the clinic doesn’t ask about YouthStat on the intake forms, and she wasn’t sure even how Youth Stat identifies at-risk kids.
“That’s a problem right there,” said Darnell Goldson, the school board’s president.
“They’re referred because of issues with schools. For instance, a child throws a chair at the principal. They have social stress: a parents’ divorce or the death of a grandparent. The referrals come from teachers, pediatricians, guidance counselors,” Jackson-McArthur said. “With this, why do you have to recreate the wheel? Seven hundred students are already in the schools where you’re going.”
Peters agreed that she doesn’t want to “duplicate” any services, but she maintained that a social worker’s clinical scoring of a student’s PTSD symptoms didn’t always match up with a teacher’s reports. “They might not be throwing a chair, but they might be in trouble,” Peters said.
“I’m saying we don’t have to go seek out these students,” Jackson-McArthur responded. “We have 700 and I added someone today. It’s happening at a record rate because of the trauma we have in our classrooms, and I don’t want us to have to waste time looking for people when there’s a process in place to channel the children who need us in that capacity.”
By consensus, the committee agreed to send that contract forward so long as Peters gets in touch with Youth Stat to coordinate services. “We’re not just asking, we’re telling you that you need to coordinate,” Goldson said. He added the board would vote on a resolution at the next meeting to receive regular reports.
Other Contracts Approved
In total, the finance committee recommended drawing down $143,040 from the general fund, plus allocating $839,157 in grant funds. The committee also accepted $16.7 million in state grants, some of which has already been spent.
The contracts that the committee moved ahead included:
- $700,000 to Roch’s Fresh Foods, a Rhode Island distribution center, to provide fresh fruits and produce for cafeterias next school year.
- $90,000 to Elm City Montessori, a charter school in Fair Haven Heights, for its contracted quarterly payment for core classroom staff.
- $62,082 to Total Communications, an East Hartford telecommunications company, in an amendment to an existing contract for extra equipment to replace schools’ network hubs.
- $53,040 to Fibertech Network, a New York company, to renew its contract for the fourth and final time for its fiber-optic network.
- $30,000 to Liliana Minaya-Rowe, an independent contractor and expert in instruction for English language learners (ELL), to train Hillhouse High School educators in “sheltered instruction,” special strategies that help non-language teachers make lessons comprehensible to ELLs.
- $25,000 to Clifford Beers Clinic to train 20 social workers in CBITS and provide 10 weeks of support during the rollout.
- $17,600 to Plascon Packaging, a Michigan-based manufacturer and low bidder, for plastic crates and aluminum dollies to transport food.
- $7,500 for the Connecticut Center for Non-Violence to pilot “neighborhood explorations” in Fair Haven and Newhallville for High School in the Community, with the goal of introducing new teachers to the area and training students in leadership and urban studies.