Last month, Nivea L. Torres resigned in disgrace from her post as the Technical High School System’s (CTHSS) superintendent following a state investigation that found she had inappropriately awarded nearly $5 million in contracts to marketing agencies — millions spent improperly that could have aided the struggling school system.
Luckily, Connecticut legislators learned from this experience and passed legislation that created safeguards to prevent this kind of fiscal mismanagement… Nah. Just kidding!
In their infinite wisdom, Connecticut lawmakers handed more autonomy to the CTHSS superintendent and board.
To highlight this farce: The Connecticut legislative session ended yesterday. After months of turmoil, the state legislature couldn’t manage to muster the political will to fix the state’s school funding system or pass a budget, but they were able to get enough votes to hand more autonomy to the state’s scandal-ridden Technical High School System. Taking ultimate oversite power away from the Department of Education, which flagged the spending issues, and instead handed it over to the system’s superintendent and the CTHSS board of directors.
Let that set in.
While the goal was to prevent Vo-tech schools from being subject to budget cuts, this move also gives free reign to a system that has already mismanage fund. The state Department of Administrative Services (DAS) independent investigation of the CTHSS found that over the last three years, the superintendent handed millions to The Pita Group, a Rocky Hill-based marketing firm. Some of the duties in their contract included managing Torres’ personal social media accounts. While two Vo-Tech Schools almost closed due to funding cuts, Torres spent millions for this firm to create her LinkedIn profile.
There was such fiscal disregard that even after advertisements were canceled and money was left unspent, CTHSS’s administration made no effort to recoup unused funds or a refund. Hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money handed over for zero services rendered.
This level of mismanagement of public funds is staggering. You can’t even say the system’s board of directors didn’t know. They were are just as culpable — here’s an excerpt from Jon Lender’s commentary piece for the Harford Courant’s Government Watch Blog:
“As to oversight by the CTHSS board: The current 11-member board didn’t take any action to curb the three years of spending on a Rocky Hill public relations firm, The Pita Group, by Torres that the DAS now says was rife with problems.
In fact, that board’s members actually commended Torres for the spending last Jan. 17. That was a week and a half after the education department’s director of legal affairs, Peter Haberlandt, reported to state auditors that the payments by CTHSS to Pita “possibly may be found to constitute ‘unauthorized’ or ‘irregular’ expenditures of state funds.”
The CTHSS Board’s commendation of Torres appeared in minutes of its Jan. 17 meeting. Even though the payments to Pita had been going on for three years, the CTHSS Board never mentioned that marketing arrangement or its costs in its public meeting minutes prior to those minutes of the Jan. 17 meeting, 11 days after Haberlandt’s critical report to the auditors.
That first-ever mention of the heavy spending was accompanied in the minutes by a justification for it: “The committee agreed that the funding expended on the CTHSS marketing campaign has been money well spent on the investment.”
The Double Standard Is Unreal
Over the past few months, the state’s largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), tried to ramp up support for anti-charter school legislation that would have created new rules for charter school management companies (CMO).
On the surface, this legislation seemed reasonable. It promised more transparency, but it would have done a lot of other unnecessary things, including requiring CMOs to release the names of their donors (something other non-profit don’t have to do). It would have also required that CMOs retain separate legal counsel and accounts from the schools they manage. All a waste of money.
Not to mention that similar legislation had already been passed in 2015, rightly forcing CMOs to be more transparent about how they use public funds. To refresh your memory, this legislation passed following the misuse of funds scandal at Jumoke Acadamy two years ago.
This hypocrisy highlights one of the major issues this state has when it comes to education: A charter school misuses funds, and swift action is taken — as it should. Meanwhile, no one bats an eyelash when the state’s Vo-tech school is investigated and the state does nothing. Worse than nothing, in fact! They removed oversight and handed it to the people who misused funds in the first place.
While ultimately the CMO legislation didn’t pass, this whole incident speaks to the bias inherent in education politics. Bias that has muddied the waters and made it hard for the state do what’s necessary for children.