Former Mayor Tim Stewart is the new Chairperson of the School Building Committee, gaining reappointment by his daughter, Mayor Erin Stewart, just as the seven-member committee moves forward with expenditures on the $50 million major renovation at the Chamberlain Elementary School on the city’s East Side.
The former four-term Mayor resigned from the SBC and the Mattabassett District Commission in 2019 under pressure and at the behest of his daughter, over offensive, misogynestic social media posts that referred to Democratic U.S. representatives in Congress, including 5th District Rep. Jahana Hayes, as “bitches in heat.” The controversy also forced Stewart out of his job as President of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. Stewart currently works as a commercial realtor. In 2017 Stewart came under fire for disparaging and racially charged remarks about the North Oak neighborhood, but he held on to his municipal appointments and Chamber job.
His return to the SBC comes after the Common Council on April 28th approved by a party-line vote a resolution to increase the powers of the SBC, designate the Mayor as the sole appointing authority and to diminish oversight by the Common Council and Board of Education.
The city is receiving a higher than usual 95 percent reimbursement for the Chamberlain school project for which a groundbreaking occurred August 10th. Representatives of Kaestle Boos Associates and Newfield Construction, the major contractors on the two-year project, were joined by Stewart administration officials. State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the House Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, led efforts to secure the state bonding for Chamberlain and previously worked to secure state financing of Smalley and Gaffney school projects. Neither Sanchez, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Mayor in the September 14th Primary to run against Stewart, nor BOE members were reported as participants at the groundbreaking.
The revised ordinance , authored by Republican Caucus members Danny Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavadra, has drawn bipartisan protests. It gives the SBC absolute authority to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers.” Those powers also extend to hiring “construction representatives” on projects, positions that have been known to turn into lucrative patronage jobs. The ordinance retains board of education and common council approval of preliminary and final plans but everything in between, including change orders and expenditures in design/build and construction phases, is left up to the SBC.
News of Stewart’s low-key return to the SBC appeared on the August 18th agenda of the SBC in a terse statement: “Chairperson Fran Wolski stepped down and Tim Stewart is the new elected Chairman.” Last February SBC Chair Wolski announced her resignation as the Chair, according to the SBC committee minutes. According to the city’s website, Wolski remains a member with Stewart as Chair and Peter Smulski as Vice Chair. Other members include Robert Ames, Michael Cassella and Angelo D’Alfonso. Paul Salina, the Stewart-appointed Director of Support Services and a former school administrator, oversees the SBC for the city.
In his prior time on the SBC in 2016 Stewart with Wolski supported the selection of a troubled Bridgeport architectural firm with a less than stellar, litigious track record for the $53 million Smalley School project, a decision that was subsequently set aside when New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates challenged the selection process. State Senator Rick Lopes (D-6), then the 24th District State Representative, alerted the SBC to the problem but the committee chose the “beleaguered” Bridgeport firm anyway. That action resulted in delays and cost overruns on the Smalley project.
Relations between the Mayor’s office and the BOE, contentious over budget issues in most years, have become even more adversarial over the SBC’s move late last year to hire Ray Moore, a retired school facilities director and a colleague of Paul Salina, as a consultant or “construction representative” on the Chamberlain School project at a six-figure annualized salary. BOE President Merrill Gay, Vice Chair Nick Mercier and Dr. Violette Jimenez-Sims criticized the attempted hiring with “no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” asserting that the role could be filled with existing school staff to save money for other education needs. Intervention by the BOE’s attorney averted a full appointment of Moore at that time to the consultant post. Republican Mercier’s public opposition to hiring a consultant without BOE input and questioning the Stewart-controlled SBC also led to the Republican Town Committee’s ousting of Mercier in July for a nomination to a third term on the BOE. A longtime Republican activist and music teacher, Mercier will stand for re-election to the BOE as a petitioning candidate for his efforts at accountability on school construction issues.
By bringing back her father to now lead the SBC as another major school construction project starts, Mayor Stewart is doubling down on an adversarial relationship with the Board of Education and school officials which unfortunately is a centerpiece of her campaign for re-election.
At the same time the new School Building Committee ordinance provides fewer checks and balances by the Council and BOE in the spending of public dollars . That means public scrutiny and closer monitoring of the SBC (Monthly meetings occur the third Wednesday of the month at noon) is needed now more than it has ever been as the Chamberlain School project moves forward.
by John McNamara