Boston's fiscal watchdog and the city's schools tussle over the use of unadvertised, no-bid contracts
when officials at the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Charlestown needed someone to work as a lunch and hall monitor, they did what often happens in the Boston Public Schools. They hired someone they know—a retired teacher who used to work at the school—without advertising the position.
|Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission|
Such contracts are commonplace in the Boston Public Schools. The system spent about $84 million—or about 10 percent of its entire general budget in the just-completed fiscal year—on unadvertised contracts worth $10,000 or more. The 257 unadvertised contracts handed out by the city’s schools dwarf the 35 issued by the Boston Police Department, the city agency with the second-highest total.
These no-bid contracts are the focus of an often contentious behind-the-scenes public policy debate. School officials say the unadvertised contracts fully comply with state bidding laws and offer a cost-effective way to provide services. But the Boston Finance Commission, a city oversight agency that must sign off on each of the contracts, says many of them are unnecessary and prone to abuse. The standoff hasn’t translated into contract gridlock: For all its professed concerns, the city’s fiscal watchdog, which operates on a shoestring budget with a two-person staff and limited clout, rejects only a handful of the unadvertised contracts—and most of those rejections are overridden by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who has final authority over all contracts.
Many of the individuals hired as consultants are retired Boston school officials. Retired teacher Maria Ciampa was paid $12,000 to work with underperforming third-grade students at the Joseph Lee Elementary School in Dorchester. Valerie Shelley, a former dean of discipline at Charlestown High School, was awarded a $15,000 contract to provide guidance services at the school. And her colleague, Peter Law, a former guidance counselor at Charlestown High, was brought back with a $15,000 contract to help out in the registrar’s office.
School officials say their use of consultants saves money because the department gets the services it needs while avoiding the added health care and other costs associated with hiring full-time workers. They also say using retirees makes sense because their past work experience allows them to hit the ground running.
“We believe that contracting with former teachers can, more often than not, be the most efficient use of precious taxpayer dollars,” says Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for the school department.
But Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey, chair of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, says he worries that too many of the contracts are being steered to insiders and the school system is not getting the biggest bang for the buck. “It’s not so much the small contracts that concern me. It’s the big ones that go into the thousands and thousands of dollars that trouble me,” he says.
Boston’s charter mandates that contracts issued by the city must be put out to bid if they exceed $10,000. Exceptions to the bid process are allowed, however, for contracts with individuals and nonprofit organizations as well as for employee training and special education. In Boston, contracts exempted from the bid process must still be approved by a variety of officials up and down the city’s chain of command, from the school principals themselves right up to Superintendent Carol Johnson and Mayor Menino.
But there is one person who must approve the contracts who doesn’t like what’s going on. Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, says the Boston Public Schools hand out way too many unadvertised contracts to way too many retired school officials.
Cahill contends that some people in the school department are prone to taking care of their old pals, referring to it as “an unfortunately common theme.” He adds: “There are times when someone who’s retired is hired back for a job that didn’t even exist before, but all of a sudden the job is so necessary they pay him $40 an hour to come back and do it. It’s the only city department that does this kind of thing to such an extent.”
Wilder says many of the job descriptions provided to the Finance Commission for the unadvertised positions don’t fully explain what the consultants will be doing. He says the three former TechBoston students, for example, do outreach work for the school but also work with students to help them overcome obstacles in their lives so they can succeed academically. As former students at the school, Wilder says, they “connect with students in a way others cannot.”
But Cahill isn’t convinced. “They just don’t want to look for new and different ways to do things,” Cahill says of school officials. “Their attitude is, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ But it is broken.”
Surprisingly, Cahill’s passionate opposition to many unadvertised contracts hasn’t led him to reject many of them. This past fiscal year he rejected just 10 of the 517 unadvertised contracts awarded by the city. The 10 contracts were all issued by the city’s school department, and they had a combined value of $208,740. Cahill has also put one school department contract on hold for an extended period of time.
Cahill says he is reluctant to reject contracts because he and his lone aide don’t have the time to drill down into the details of each consultant’s work. He also worries that rejecting unadvertised contracts could end up hurting students. “I honestly don’t want to feel guilty about rejecting something for a student, especially in some of the deprived areas of the city,” he says. “I don’t want to deny them.”
Even when he does reject a contact, though, the rejection doesn’t have much of an impact. Three of the ten contracts rejected by Cahill were scrubbed by the school department—one with the Museum of African-American History to run teaching institutes and two contracts with individuals—one to provide assistance in adult education and the other to train cafeteria workers.
But six contracts rejected by Cahill were overturned by Menino. A seventh hadn’t reached the mayor’s desk at press time. The rejections include a $30,590 contract with food service giant Sodexo to cater a three-day program for teachers, with $1,796 allocated for an ice cream sundae bar and $916 for table cloths. The mayor also reinstated a $25,000 contract for a former teacher to serve as the “face of TechBoston Academy,” a $20,000 contract for a grant coordinator, a $29,250 contract for Northeastern University to offer a six-week course in precalculus, and a $21,000 contract for a former school teacher to serve as the lunch and hall monitor and provide other services at the Edwards Middle School.
Cahill also rejected one of two $18,000 contracts awarded to retired Boston school teachers to help run the city’s science fair, pointing out in a letter to Menino that it was the fourth year in a row the former teacher had been hired and arguing that such “business as usual is not acceptable.” The mayor ignored Cahill’s plea and reinstated the contract.
The seventh contract rejected by Cahill but awaiting review by Menino is for a retired principal from California to provide professional development services at the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury. Cahill says he rejected the $24,300 contract because its $243 hourly rate is excessive and it was filed seven months late.
Cahill put on hold a $12,000 contract with Roberta D’Antona of Saugus, who runs an anti-bullying consulting firm. D’Antona, whose son committed suicide after being bullied, would be paid at the rate of $1,000 a day for each day of training and $100 per school per month for follow-up technical assistance. Cahill says the $1,000-a-day cost is too high, even though D’Antona claims she is taking $500 off her regular daily rate. Cahill also says the school department is already paying retired Boston principal Edmund Donnelly $40 an hour to do anti-bullying work.
Despite Cahill’s hold, D’Antona says she was given the go-ahead to begin conducting training sessions back in January by Maggie Drouineaud, assistant director of support services for the school department, on the assumption the contract would eventually be approved. But after inquiries from CommonWealth in May, D’Antona says she was told by Drouineaud to immediately stop doing any work on the contract because the school department is concerned it is going to be embarrassed.
Sam Tyler, executive director of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent watchdog that is not part of city government, says the Finance Commission’s history helps explain why it tends to work behind the scenes for change in city government, and why it is not always the most fearsome check on municipal operations. The commission was created by the state Legislature in the early 1900s, a time when Brahmin Yankees on Beacon Hill were concerned about the Irish takeover of Boston’s political establishment. Its board is appointed by the governor, yet its skimpy $180,000 budget, which only provides enough funding for two positions, comes from the city budget, meaning the mayor and city council control its purse strings. As Tyler notes: “It’s not a 100 percent watchdog.”
City officials don’t inform Cahill when the mayor overrides his contract rejections, and he typically doesn’t follow up on his own. He learned about the mayor’s approval of the contracts he had rejected from CommonWealth.
Told that the mayor approved the contract with retired teacher Francis Borelli to serve as a lunch and hall monitor and provide other services at the Edwards Middle School, Cahill shared an email exchange he had with David Waterfall, a lawyer in the city’s law department, about that contract.“What does it say about contract controls when a hall monitor is making $40 hourly and a principal is making $60 hourly?” Cahill asks in his email.
“Wow,” Waterfall responded. “Maybe I should become a hall monitor.”