Carolyn Sacco

As the New Haven Board of Education faces extensive criticism from parents and teachers, the Board of Education’s Finance and Operations Committee grilled contractors and the school system’s central office staff over the school system’s contracting practices at its biweekly meeting on Monday.

At the meeting, the committee members reevaluated several contracts that the Board of Education had delayed voting on at the full Board meeting last week, as well as approved Title I and Title IV grants from the state. Finance Committee members questioned district employees who were presenting the allocation of grant money about the qualifications of contractors, the past success of different projects and other ways funds could be allocated.

Members clashed over questions that were raised at the Nov. 26 Board of Education meeting, where attendees raised concerns about the way that the district procures contracts for student and legal services. New Haven’s contract with for-profit therapy group Integrated Wellness Group (IWG) specifically raised concerns Monday afternoon.

“We have used a process, and we have had vendors come in and submit proposals before we look at them and decide what we want to use,” New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Carol Birks said regarding the current contract process. “We looked at people’s work around the state, their reputation and the districts they have worked with.”

The School Board has recently come under fire for its lack of communication regarding the bidding process for outside contractors who provide services in the school district. The school district is posed to face an $8.6 million budget deficit in the 2018–19 school year. Following controversial school closings and staff layoffs over the year, the public has demanded more accountability and proof of the contract programs’ success.

On Monday, Birks added that many of the contractors have long-standing relationships with the district. In efforts to revise district policies regarding contractors, board member Edward Joyner is leading a task force to restructure the guidelines for the contract procurement process.

The IWG received a $200,000 contract in January to provide a Rapid Access program which gives referrals to students for mental health programs and the Veterans Empowering Teens through Support program, which gives jobs to discharged veterans to mentor students.

The district offered a $150,000 contract renewal to IWG for the veterans program this fall. While approval of the contract has been on the full Board’s agenda since the end of October, the measure has yet to be voted on due to ongoing questions about the program’s viability.

In the past, the IWG has been criticized for failing to present documentation of results and for its director’s close relationship with Mayor Toni Harp, who also serves on the Board. At the meeting, the parent-teacher advocacy group New Haven Public School Advocates raised several questions about whether the veterans’ wages were appropriate given the size of the contract.

Board president Darnell Goldson expressed support for IWG CEO Maysa Akbar at the meeting and clashed with Finance Committee member Tamiko Jackson-McArthur.

“I have been dumbfounded by the attention that this contract has been receiving. Every week we discuss contracts that are 10 times this much,” said Goldson. “I don’t understand it. I am dumbfounded by it, and I am hoping that it is a mistake on someone’s part.”

However, despite Goldson’s support of the work of IWG, he also raised several questions about the salary of the veterans. Jackson-McArthur questioned if the Board would expand IWG’s funding from the previous year, which she argued was $50,000 — $100,000 less than this year’s contract. Jackson-McArthur requested further data supporting the program’s expansion.

Jackson-McArthur and Goldson disagreed on the necessity to extensively evaluate IWG’s programs. Goldson eventually accused Jackson-McArthur of not trusting the data from Assistant Superintendent Iline Tracey, who provided different funding statistics than those Jackson-McArthur shared at the meeting.

Akbar said that she believed questions about the veterans’ salary were inappropriate for the forum but agreed to provide the information to the Board. She emphasized that IWG does extensive individual assessments of students.

“Some things have gotten misconstrued,” Akbar told the Committee. “There is some discussion of the fidelity of the work we do, and it’s a shame that that is where we are. The programs that we provide are honored in the places where we work.”

Furloughs and school closures were also on the agenda for the night’s meeting, but after hours of discussing contracts, the committee adjourned the meeting without discussing these two topics.

The Finance and Operations Committee meets on the first and third Monday of each month.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu