NEW BRITAIN – Local officials continues to question the legality of a city committee to hire a retired school district employee as a project consultant.
“What stuck out for me and what was troubling was the fact that there has been no request for proposals or bidding for this position,” said Nick Mercier, vice president of the New Britain Board of Education. “It was a contract that was already negotiated and just handed off to us to put a stamp on. I think it’s very telling that it was never anybody’s opinion that this didn’t need board of education approval, until it became apparent that the board of education wasn’t going to go along with it.”
The city’s School Building Committee announced early summer it was hiring Raymond Moore, a former district facilities director who retired in April, as an architectural consultant for the Chamberlain Elementary School renovations project and reroofing projects for Pulaski Middle School and Slade Middle School.
The SBC is a 7-member organization appointed by the city, according to the city’s ordinance. It is responsible for developing preliminary plans and cost estimates for each school construction project and reports are made to the Board of Education, the Common Council and the Mayor’s Office.
“We are an entity that gives freely of their time, passionate about what we do,” said Francis Wolski, SBC chairwoman during a meeting in September. According to meeting minutes, she said it is the committee’s responsibility to protect city money, to finish projects on time and under budget.
The hiring move came as a surprise to many school district and city officials and some are questioning whether it is legal for a committee to formally hire for the position.
“We all reacted with ‘why do we need to hire Ray Moore’ when we already have a new and qualified facilities director, who has always been the one to work on renovation projects,” said Merrill Gay, board of education president.
Because there was no real justification behind the hiring and with a contract that will pay Moore $150 per hour, Dr. Violet Jimenez Sims, board of education secretary, said she could not in good conscience greenlight the hire, especially when there is no rationale as to why this position is necessary.
“This has nothing to do with whether Ray Moore is qualified or not, it’s the process,” she said. “It comes down to the fact that he has retired, a qualified person was hired to do the job, which includes all the responsibilities that Ray Moore used to do. So as a board member, a taxpayer and a representative of the residents, it’s problematic to pay this amount of money to duplicate a service.”
The board of education unanimously voted down the contract during its Oct. 5 meeting, believing “spending approximately $150,000 of school bonded city dollars for a project manager is not necessary and not the best use of the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Based on records obtained by The Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request, the contract states the full compensation will be $150 per hour not to exceed 20 hours per week. It also includes signature spaces for the SBC, the school district, the city, and the hired person, which potentially indicates the hiring process needed the approval of all four parties, a contentious point that remains to be challenged by the involved parties.
As the former facilities director, Moore was paid an annual salary of $133,499, excluding benefits. As a consultant, he would be paid a maximum annual cost up to $156,000.
According to the district, a facilities director usually dedicates about 20% of their work to capital projects. In this case, they said there is no need for an outside consultant for the Pulaski and Slade roofing projects. If additional support is needed for the larger Chamberlain project, the district would go through a request-for-proposal process and the qualified firm could be contracted at a rate up to $115 per hour.
It is important to have a checks and balances process for such a large amount of taxpayer money, said Sims, who emphasized that because the projects involved state funds, they have to be very specific in justifying the spending.
“We try to save as much city-side taxpayer money as possible. 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,” she said.
In a memo to the BOE, Patrick McHale, an attorney representing the board, states that based on state statutes and local ordinances, it is his opinion that “New Britain Public Schools, acting through the Board of Education, has the right to approve the selection of the construction representative even through such representative is ultimately responsible to the school building committee.”
This corresponds with Assistant Corporation Counsel Joseph Skelly’s legal opinion, who stated in an email to Mayor Erin Stewart in September that Moore was required to get the approval of both the board of education and common council. While Corporation Counsel Gennaro Bizzarro said “the committee does not need approval from the Board of Education to retain a constructive representative so long as the salary for such representative does not exceed the appropriations made by the Common Council of the City of New Britain.”
John Bradley, an attorney who represents Moore, said in August the contract should be approved by the board of education and by the common council in accordance with city ordinance. He also referenced to Skelly, who suggested Moore could take the contract up to the BOE for approval, then submit it to the common council.
However, in an October memo, Bradley said after reviewing Bizzarro’s opinion on the ordinance, “we are in full agreement with the analysis and conclusions in that opinion,” he said.
Mercier said if there was a need for this position, and the committee and the board had a conversation together about it, the situation would be different.
“But that never happened,” Mercier said. “All along we’ve been open to having that conversation, but it seems very absolute and there is no room for middle ground.”
Wolski said during the September meeting the committee didn’t want the new facilities director to feel unwelcomed and that they welcome him and will work with him.
SBC Chairwoman Francis Wolski did not return multiple messages left by the Herald seeking comment.