Amid ongoing debates about budget cuts and school funding, the New Haven Board of Education discussed outside contractors and Board transparency at their biweekly meeting on Monday night.
At the meeting, several parents and teachers raised concerns about the Board’s lack of communication regarding approved contracts with outside companies for student services such as counseling, tutoring and recruitment. While certain Board members justified the necessities of the contracts to avoid a time-consuming bidding process, others criticized the Board’s procedure for hiring outside contractors for student services.
“We should know that people are qualified,” Board Member Edward Joyner told the Board. “I don’t want someone to fix my toilet because they like plumbing. I want them to know something about plumbing. It’s the same here.”
During the Nov. 19 Finance and Operations Committee meeting, the committee members recommended the approval of several no-bid, or non-competitive contracts, to several organizations. At the full Board meeting on Monday, the parent-teacher advocacy group New Haven Public Schools Advocates argued that the Board was too quick to accept negotiations and did not scrutinize the outside contracts. The contracts must be presented and voted on by the full Board, after they pass in committee.
One of the contracts allows for the local therapy business Integrated Wellness Group to provide mentorship to “at-risk students” through their Veterans Empowering Teens through Support program. In the past, the Integrated Wellness Group has been criticized for failing to present documentation of results and for their director’s close relationship with Mayor Toni Harp, who is also a Board member.
At the public participation section of the meeting, NHPS Advocates’ member and district parent Jill Kelly told the Board that the veterans who serve as mentors were not being paid the wages that were expected.
Joyner, who leads the newly formed Contract Procedures Review Task Group, pointed to flaws in the contract procurement process the Board uses to hire outside companies for student services in a presentation on Monday.
Joyner argued that the district has a “less than rigorous proposal and evaluation process” for outside contractors. He recommended better staff training for vetting companies and vigorous monitoring of contractor work. Joyner also said that he thought that existing teachers who know students should be used for after-school programs in place of outside contractors.
“We have actually had some of our professional service vendors overbill us,” Joyner told meeting attendees. “That’s true, and that shouldn’t happen.”
On Monday, Finance Committee Chair and Board Vice President Jamell Cotto recommended that several contracts — including the one with the Integrated Wellness Group — be sent back to the Finance and Operations Committee, because of the amount of community criticism and submitted questions from the New Haven Public School Advocates.
Later in the meeting, Typhanie Jackson, the NHPS director of student services, said that one of the contractors hired to preside over hearings to determine student expulsion is already working for the district. The contractor, who is a lawyer, has already started to prepare for his role as a Hearing Officer who makes decisions and presides over meetings, which complicated the Board’s efforts to delay approving his contract. They were unaware that he had begun working without their final approval, which caused conflict among members about communication efforts.
“For us to spend this much time going over $20,000 contracts, I don’t believe that is the best use of this committee’s time,” Harp said in regard to the expulsion hearing.
In addition to the contract conflict, discussions about Board transparency were also central to Monday’s meeting.
At each Board meeting, New Haven Public Schools Advocates submits a list of questions about policy and budget decisions to be recorded and answered by the Central Office or the Board. On Monday, they reported that they submitted a Freedom of Information Act request because recent questions about the Superintendent Carol Birks’ actions have not been answered.
Tensions grew between Birks and several Board members as conversation shifted to Board transparency. Board members said that they were confused about choosing between personally answering questions and sending them to the district central office. Since assuming her position in March, Birks has expressed hesitancy to post answers to all public questions during full Board meetings.
Birks asserted that her office was “happy” to address individual questions and pointed to monthly “Coffee Conversations” she holds to address community concerns. The next coffee chat will take place on Dec. 20 at Wilbur Cross High School.
“At our finance meetings, we try to anticipate the questions that people may have,” Birks said. “If the board wants to give me the authority today to hire a person to answer public questions, I would be very happy to do that. We just do not have the staff to write back on a lot of things.”
Board transparency has been at the top of the district’s agenda since the prolonged and contentious Superintendent search following the resignation of Garth Harris ’95 in September 2016. The process, which was delayed several moments, culminated in the election of Birks in November 2017. Attendees at public meetings criticized the Board for failing to take into account a diverse range of voices from the community during the search. Since then, Board members have repeatedly affirmed their commitment to remedying the Board’s transparency issues.
The Board meets on the second and fourth Mondays of each month.
Carolyn Sacco | email@example.com