NB Politicus

Behind Mayor Stewart’s War On Supt. Sarra and the BOE

By John McNamara

The vandalism and trouble that occurred at New Britain High School in September needlessly escalated the rift between Mayor Erin Stewart and New Britain School District leaders.

Incidents of student misbehavior fueled by social media have not been limited to New Britain as districts in CT and elsewhere re-opened this fall.

Mayor Erin Stewart, however, used the disruption to immediately berate School Superintendent Nancy Sarra and educators for not cracking down enough on youthful offenders. The call to meet and work together came second only after Erin Stewart got her licks in on the campaign trail. Harsh criticism of educators is a central theme of Ms. Stewart’s re-election campaign. The NBHS incident was just an opening for the incumbent mayor to score political points at the expense of school officials dealing with Tik Tok-related misbehavior and parents wanting assurances that their children would be OK.

The Mayor’s social media response to the high school incident could be forgiven if it was a one off dispute between City Hall and the School District. The dialogue gets predictably contentious every year over local funding for schools as New Britain has ranked near the bottom on school spending during the Stewart years.

Mayor Stewart maintains that the schools need to “operate differently” before she’ll support additional city dollars for education. When Council Democrats proposed a meager $1 million increase in this year’s municipal budget Stewart and her Council Caucus opposed it. A $500,000 boost was OK’d but the City is holding onto that money four months into the fiscal year claiming that it has increased local aid to education without giving up a dime.

Stewart skewers the school district for being “dead last” in student achievement while her budgets give New Britain almost dead last ranking in how they support public education. Previously, the Mayor has expressed little concern or no concern over school achievement as she denies BOE requests each year. “In recent years, educators have said they need at least $5 million more than their regular budgets to catch up with similar districts. The nonpartisan School and State Finance Project last year reported that only Danbury spends less on each student than New Britain does, with even deeply impoverished systems like Bridgeport, Waterbury and Windham spending more,” according to a story by The Hartford Courant’s Don Stacom.

In her escalating feud with Sarra and the bipartisan Board of Education, Stewart employs Paul Salina, who has held a $90,000+ patronage job (interim director of operations) at City Hall since 2018. A former NBHS Principal and band leader who retired in 2003, Salina, 72, later returned to the public schools as an administrator before and after Kelt Cooper’s superintendency holding down a $146,000 operations officer job. When Superintendent Sarra reorganized and reduced administrative overhead, she reduced Salina’s role and salary. Salina retired again but quickly joined the Stewart administration with a vague and largely undefined strategy and policy role.

Erin Stewart and Paul Salina in a recent campaign mailer.

Within the last year the Stewart-Salina duo has ramped up the fight with the BOE on a range of issues from the hiring of a football coach to school funding to control of school construction leaving no space for any kind of cooperation.

The fight over the last year has primarily involved the School Building Committee (SBC) and the attempted hiring of another retired school official and colleague of Salina for an oversight job on the Chamberlain School renovation 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. ” from New Britain Progressive, August 22, 2021;

‘The Return of Tim Stewart: Ex-Mayor Chairs SBC As $50M School Project Begins”

The flap over the hiring of a Chamberlain project consultant demonstrates what is behind the barrage of attacks against Sarra and the school board which have become fodder for Team Stewart’s campaign of misinformation.

At issue is power, patronage and the special favors that Stewart and her cronies want and used to get but are not getting anymore. Nancy Sarra won’t have any part of the political games Stewart and Salina want to play. She and the current BOE’s Democratic and Republican members who have her back are resisting inappropriate power grabs from City Hall as they focus on the challenges of educating in a chronically under-funded urban school system.


The Return of Tim Stewart: Former Mayor Chairs SBC As $50 Million School Project Begins

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

School Building Committee Resolution Curtails Checks and Balances on School Construction Projects

By John McNamara

A controversial resolution that removes Common Council and Board of Education approval of all contracts and spending on school construction projects came back to the Common Council April 28th meeting and was approved on a party line vote.

The resolution, authored by Republican caucus members Daniel Salerno and Sharon Beloin-Saavedra and revised at the April 15th Consolidation Committee meeting, removes key language that requires that contracts and expenditures on multi-million dollar school projects are “subject to the approval of the board of education and common council.” Instead, it vests control of School Building Committee (SBC) appointments to the Mayor, leaving the Council with two members on the seven-member committee.

According to the new resolution the SBC will “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers, and within the limits of the appropriations made by the council, this committee shall engage and fix the salary of one or more construction representatives.”

Salerno and Beloin-Saavedra, acting on behalf of Mayor Erin Stewart and willingly diminishing the Common Council’s role, cite mayoral powers in the City Charter granting appointment power for all “boards and commissions” to the Mayor as a justification for the sweeping changes that hand the purse strings and contracting over to the SBC for school renovations and construction. They say they are just cleaning up the language in accordance with the charter.

CITY HALL WATCH

As if trying to obscure the intent of the resolution, the revised ordinance has a preamble that implies Common Council members would continue to have a say in SBC meetings and deliberations or, for that matter, any other board or commission using general ordinance language on the access any common council member has to go to a public meeting: “Alderpersons may attend any meetings. The members of the council, or any of them, may attend the regular, special, or other meetings of all boards, commissions, and agencies when, in their discretion, their presence would best serve the interests of the city.”

Unlike boards and commissions mandated by the City Charter, however, the School Building Committee is created by ordinance with purposes and conditions set by the Common Council in accordance with powers granted to the legislative branch (the Council). The mayoral powers justification for ending all BOE and Council oversight on school building projects is both exclusionary and unwise given the large amounts of taxpayer money involved on these projects which are heavily reimbursed by the state and its bonding authority. Most recently makeovers of the Smalley and Gaffney schools have cost upwards of $80 million.

Although the lion’s share of funding for any school construction comes from the state, Connecticut law is silent on local school building committees, their powers and composition, according to a legislative analysis on SBCs and school construction. What the analysis does say, however, is that boards of education are ultimately responsible and must “make a continuing study of the need for school facilities and of a long-term school building program.” State statutes do no specify how local school boards must carry out their responsibility for maintaining school buildings. Nothing either requires or allows a board to, or prevents it from, establishing a permanent committee to oversee school maintenance.”

The revised New Britain resolution makes the Superintendent of Schools an ex-officio member of the SBC which is to say the BOE’s representative is an observer without a vote.

Democratic Alderman at Large Chris Anderson opposed the revised ordinance asserting that it “consolidates power, reduces transparency and eliminates checks and balances.” He was joined by five other Democrats on the Council opposing the move to usurp Common Council and Board of Education authority over public monies they appropriate and are responsible for in the school district’s buildings.

A consequence of the new SBC resolution is that it contributes to a bigger divide between City Hall and the BOE. New Britain’s close to last ranking in how much the municipal government contributes to public schools is a perennial and contentious issue at budget time every year and this year is no exception. Politically, it serves the Mayor and her Council cohorts well to disparage the BOE by implying it wastes money as they engage in tax-cut demagoguery. During the Common Council’s discussion of the SBC resolution, for example, Alderwomen Beloin-Saavedra, a former BOE President, didn’t help BOE-City Hall cooperation. She disparagingly pointed to the BOE and school administration as the place where more oversight is needed,asking: “Who’s watching the henhouse over there?”

And as with most issues to come before the Council the nine members of the Republican caucus remained rubber stamps for Mayor Stewart, ceding absolute control over the school construction process and the opportunities it presents the city administration for patronage, favors and picking contractors.

Related Post https://nbpoliticus.com/2021/03/08/stewart-seeks-to-exclude-boe-common-council-from-approving-use-of-school-construction-money/

Stewart Seeks To Exclude BOE, Common Council From Approving Use Of School Construction Money

Posted in Bonding, City Hall, public education, school board, School Construction by nbpoliticus on March 8, 2021

By John McNamara

The Stewart Administration, blocked in recent months by a bipartisan Board of Education (BOE) and city ordinance from filling a political patronage job on a new school construction project, will seek to remove  Common Council and BOE authority on school construction spending handing the final say over to the seven-member School Building Committee (SBC) appointed by the Mayor.

A resolution filed by the Republican caucus Majority Leader Daniel Salerno and Alderwoman Sharon Beloin-Saavedra at the March 10th Council meeting would alter the membership of the SBC, by dropping Common Council appointments.  It would further cede approval to “engage, select, and enter into or continue all necessary contracts with contractors, architects, landscape architects, or engineers, and within the limits of the appropriations made by the council, this committee shall engage and fix the salary of one or more construction representatives ” to the School Building Committee. The existing ordinance requires  approval by the BOE and Common Council.

CITY HALL WATCH

The hiring of a construction representative for the Chamberlain Elementary School renovation project and re-roofing projects at Pulaski and Slade Middle Schools sparked controversy last year when the SBC selected Ray Moore, the former Schools’ facilities director, to be a construction representative at a six-figure salary shortly after he retired from his job at the schools.  Former NBHS Principal and retired School Administrator Paul Salina, who is the Stewart appointed Director of Support Services at City Hall, reportedly pushed hard for Moore, his former colleague, to get the lucrative construction representative’s position. 

BOE members, however, objected to the Moore hiring saying a newly-hired Facilities Director in the School District could handle oversight of the Chamberlain renovation without the added costs. “We try to save as much as city-wide taxpayer money as possible.” BOE Member Violette Jimenez Sims told the New Britain Herald’s Catherine Shen in a November 24th story. “For me, I would rather spend the money that would directly impact the children that they can use forever and ever and not spending it on a redundant service.” 

The Moore hire was subsequently set aside after BOE Attorney Patrick McHale asserted that state statutes and the ordinance gave the BOE the right of approval of the construction manager who answers to the SBC.

For all its clout in allocating and contracting tens of millions of dollars for school construction the School Building Committee is a relatively obscure municipal government committee.  It’s not easily found on the city website’s link to boards and commissions.   Its Chairperson, Frances Wolski, has been a member for multiple two-year terms during the Stewart administrations. The committee has seven members but two seats are vacant as of February.   The Committee’s most prominent member in recent years has been former Mayor Timothy Stewart, a position of influence he held during his daughter’s first two terms until his mysogynistic social media rants ended his tenure on the committee and as head of the Chamber of Commerce.

Last year the Council approved $57 million for the Chamberlain renovation and re-roofing projects contingent on state reimbursements.  State Representative Bobby Sanchez (D-25), the Chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has successfully worked to get a 95% reimbursement from the state for a renovated Chamberlain School in the east end and roof upgrades to two middle schools.

The proposed School Building Committee resolution is certain to raise new concerns by Common Council Democrats over the propriety of removing Council and BOE checks and balances on school construction.  School construction projects involve millions of dollars in state bond and local funds that need to be allocated with competitive bidding and full transparency, which is what the existing ordinance ensures.  Ceding all power now to the Mayor’s office and the Mayoral appointed SBC creates a process that will eliminate oversight by elected BOE and Council members.

Related Story:  School Building Committee Pick For Architect of Smalley Academy Renovation Has Its Share of Troubles.

Related Story from New Britain Herald  Construction Bill Will Fund Three New Britain School Projects

 

 

 

 

School Building Committee’s Pick For Architect Of Smalley Academy Renovation Has Its Share Of Troubles

Posted in School Construction by nbpoliticus on September 4, 2016

By John McNamara

Bridgeport-based Fletcher Thompson has been selected as architect for the renovation of Smalley Academy by the city’s School Building Committee in a close and potentially controversial vote.

Fletcher Thompson (FT) is a well-established  architectural and engineering business with offices in Connecticut and New Jersey. Its roots go back a century in Bridgeport and K-12 projects figure prominently in the  design services it offers.

Smalley Academy, a K-Grade 5 Elementary School, Is Due For Modernization.

Smalley Academy, a K-Grade 5 Elementary School, Is Due For Modernization.

The  firm’s recent track record, however,  shows “a litany of lawsuits,” according to a January 7, 2016 Connecticut Post story that characterized the company as “beleaguered.”  That may explain an unconfirmed report that  the School Building Committee’s deliberations were contentious. The vote purportedly was close on the little-noticed but powerful seven-member school building group with Fletcher Thompson getting the nod over New Britain-based Kaestle Boos Associates.   One member was absent from the meeting and a tie vote developed on a motion to re-consider Kaestle Boos because it is a local bidder. The city ordinance governing municipal contracts stipulates that a city-based bidder with a  low bid not more than eight (8) percent higher than the lowest bid may get the work if  “such city-based bidder agrees to accept the award of the bid at the lowest bid amount.”

Fletcher Thompson’s recent troubles, according to press reports, go from nonpayment of employee pensions and other bills amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars to possible eviction from its main office to reports of cost overruns on school projects.

  • The January 2016 Connecticut Post story reported U.S. Department of Labor action to compel the firm to make payments for its pensioners.  At issue has been $485,000 owed 164 participants in the company’s plan. By the end of January a partial agreement was announced that requires a repayment schedule starting with release of  funds from a retirement account of one of the firm’s managing partners who was named in the complaint.
  • In April of this year the architectural firm also faced eviction proceedings from its Bridgeport headquarters in the former Mechanics & Farmers Bank only two years into a 10-year lease.   It had relocated back to Bridgeport from Shelton offices. Soon thereafter problems arose “with contractors and providers including Cisco Systems, McLaren Engineering Group, Prudential and Fuss & O’Neill, among others, claiming the company had failed to make payments on hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments.”
  • The Meriden Record Journal has reported that Fletcher Thompson erred in one part of the design of the $107 million Maloney High School project in 2014 that resulted in a cost overrun of  $330,000 requiring use of contingency funds. Meriden and company officials, however, stated that change orders on projects of that magnitude are to be expected and the Maloney project has not been affected by FT’s mounting legal and financial difficulties.
  • In 2012,  an $85 million Southington middle school renovation project resulted in frustration and  strong local objections to Fletcher Thompson’s work. Cost overruns, running into millions of dollars, went from two to 10 percent because of remediation issues. “(Building Committee Member Christopher) Palmieri said the town has been promised for nearly two years, going back to when Fletcher Thompson was first hired to conduct a feasibility study regarding middle school renovations, that overruns would not exceed two percent. Instead, they now appear to be at 8.9 percent and to 10.2 percent respectively,” according to a November 2012 news story.

While Fletcher Thompson’s widely reported financial and legal problems may have been discussed by the New Britain School Building Committee, the situation did not dissuade members from selecting the firm for the overhaul of  Smalley Academy.

The Smalley Academy project in New Britain got a green light from the Common Council in June with a preliminary cost estimate totalling $53 million that some officials found to be inflated for the K-5 elementary school where renovations and improvements are long over due. By contrast the recently completed Gaffney School renovations cost $30 million.   The Council go ahead gave the Building Committee, whose members include former Mayor Timothy Stewart and allies of Mayor Erin Stewart, the go ahead to solicit bids from architects. In addition to Tim Stewart school building committee members include Sheila Smith, Fran Wolski, Carmen D’Agostino, Angelo D’Alfonso, Ryan Pinard and Peter Smulski.

The New Britain legislative delegation will seek approval of state school bond funds once the project is ready to implement. The city gets 80 percent reimbursement from the state for school construction.

SEE related NB Politicus post: Smalley Academy Renovation Cost Jumps To $53 Million

Smalley Academy Renovation Cost Jumps To $53m; Public Hearing Wednesday, June 22, At Council Committee

Posted in Bonding, public education, School Construction by nbpoliticus on June 19, 2016

What’s behind a $53 million price tag for renovations to  Smalley Academy, a K-5 elementary school near downtown and North-Oak Streets?  That question should be on the minds of the Common Council after initial estimates by school officials were closer to $30 million last year. The earlier estimate by school officials was tens of millions of dollars  less than the amount now moving through approvals before the project goes to the state for bonding and to the city’s school building committee for bids and construction.

Smalley with an enrollment of 654 students is the next educational building in line for improvements in New Britain. The need for enhancement of the school is not at issue among educators, city officials and State Rep. Bobby Sanchez (D-25) whose district includes the Smalley Academy where more than 70 percent of students are Hispanic. Sanchez and members of the city’s legislative delegation are advocates for state bond support for Smalley.  The city receives 80 percent funding from the state  when projects pass muster and are approved at the state level. Sanchez, however, says his inquiries to city officials about the project so far have gone unanswered.

SmalleyAcademy

Next In Line For Renovations Is Smalley Academy  (from megaeducation.com)

At issue is the feasibility plan coming out of the Council’s bonding subcommittee that puts the costs much higher than prior estimates.  In the last major New Britain school renovation at Gaffney School – which has a comparable enrollment and size to Smalley Academy –  the total cost was $30 million.   A former high-level New Britain school administrator says the $53 million price would be more appropriate for new construction at a larger school,  not improvements and upgrades to Smalley.

On Wednesday, June 22nd  at 6:30 p.m.the City Council’s Committee on Administration, Finance and Law will vote on whether to accept the $53 million appropriation and bond authorization for the school renovation and expansion project.  Public comment will be invited prior to the vote at City Hall.