NB Politicus

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.