CT paid thousands for public school facilities assessment, but the work was never done
Connecticut paid $106,000 to assess public school facilities through a no-bid contract arranged by Kosta Diamantis, who stopped running the state's school construction office amid an FBI investigation into his tenure.
EDITOR’S NOTE: After publication of this story, a representative for Dude Solutions sent CT Public a statement which has been placed at the bottom of this story.
At the Beardsley School in Bridgeport, you can see and hear its age.
Through the creaky steel door into the 118-year-old red brick building is a stairwell that leads to the school's main corridor. A nearby entryway leads to the gym, where the wood floors are buckling. In the dimly lit basement are the kindergarten classrooms and the windowless cafeteria. Air purifiers hum throughout the building.
"It's kind of ancient. It could use a little upgrade," Fred Logan, who has worked as the school's custodian for 12 years, said during a tour.
It's been nine years since the state last measured the condition of this elementary school. Back then, the results for this school showed that there were air quality problems in six of the 17 areas measured and no plans for the issues to be fixed.
There have been no major renovations since.
Superintendent Michael Testani says persuading the state to replace this school and others has been a struggle.
“It just doesn't seem like trying to appeal to lawmakers without something that is concrete gets us anywhere," he said. "We advocate year after year after year for additional funding, and we get shut down. In order to get major construction projects over the finish line, there needs to be something that not only gives us the information but also holds them accountable at the legislature to set aside funds for this."
The data was also used by state lawmakers to craft state spending priorities for school construction.
"Bottom line is that a bunch of different individuals and groups would tune in to this report and focus on it when determining what next steps were," said Andy Fleischmann, a former state representative and longtime chairman of the Education Committee. "This report and the data that's rolled up into it had an impact."
But that all changed in 2015 as Konstantinos Diamantis, the new head of the state’s school construction program, began casting doubt about the unfavorable data as the state Department of Education faced a lawsuit from local towns over school funding.
"That survey was faulty. It didn't provide adequate information. It was never kept up to date, and they didn't ask pertinent questions that would get to the issues that we needed to get to," Diamantis said, making the case to legislators to scrap the reporting requirement while he set up a new system to track school building conditions.
He got the green light from the governor’s office to outsource the work through a no-bid contract with North Carolina-based Dude Solutions. Diamantis said so many districts were already using a North Carolina-based software company to “collect, assess and analyze key metrics," so it made sense to go with that company.
”We created and partnered with Dude Solutions to create a new survey, which is out in the field now. We've been working on it feverishly to get it done. They’re updating it now as we're speaking. So we know exactly in real time how the schools are maintaining the buildings that we've invested a great deal of money in," Diamantis told legislators in 2020.
But CT Public’s Accountability Project has found that the work was never done — and the company was still paid $106,000.
So how often are contractors paid by the state for work that is never done?
”It's incredibly unusual. This is a real outlier," said Noel Petra, who took over school construction after an ongoing FBI probe forced out Diamantis. Federal investigators are looking into questionable state-funded construction projects that were under the purview of Diamantis, who abruptly resigned in October.
Both Dude Solutions and state officials declined to discuss what exactly went wrong.
But Diamantis told CT Public that the new accounting of school facilities "was moving right along. How it concluded I cannot tell you because I left."
State records, however, show the state stopped working with the company during the spring of 2020 – more than a year before Diamantis left.
Public left blind on condition of schools
This was all happening as Gov. Ned Lamont scaled back and capped how much he was willing to spend on school construction. And as friction over school construction needs grew as research emerged about the importance of good ventilation in school classrooms during COVID. Yet, Diamantis insisted that air quality was not a problem, and if there was a problem, districts were to blame.
“COVID has brought everyone to their knees to understand the value of maintaining your HVAC systems. In most cases, the maintenance budgets for HVAC systems are last when people have to pick between books or other things that teachers may need. So as a result those systems suffer," Diamantis said last summer.
Without the inventory of the health and safety of schools, too much power about school spending decisions can rest with the executive branch, Fleischmann warned.
“In the absence of information, the folks in the executive branch end up with more leverage than they would have if such a report were widely distributed. That information was valuable data for folks who were trying to make their case and trying to paint a picture for the Assembly of what needed to happen."
“In the absence of information, the folks in the executive branch end up with more leverage than they would have if such a report were widely distributed."former state education committee chairman Andy Fleishmann
Joe Delong, leader of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, struggled to paint that picture of the condition of HVAC systems and wanted proof from Diamantis of his claim that districts are not maintaining their HVAC systems. That’s something he could’ve checked online before the surveys were scrapped, so he went to the state’s school construction office.
”It was met in a very, very adversarial way by the administration. [Diamantis] came across as almost angry and demeaning that we would even bring it up," said Delong.
Delong and others escalated the issue to Diamantis’ boss: Gov. Ned Lamont.
“What we got back from the governor's office was you know, thanks for coming to us, but we support [Diamantis] and whatever he decides," said Delong.
Early last year, Lamont told local officials from across the state during the Council of Small Towns’ annual meeting that he trusted Diamantis’ assessment of school conditions.
“What Kosta has done over at OPM is we’ve gone to most of the schools. At least we know exactly what the status is on ventilation there," the Democratic governor said.
Shortly after Diamantis was pushed out of his job, the state found out that Diamantis did a significantly scaled-back version of the old school facilities survey before he left. That data was released to Connecticut Public nearly six months after it was requested.
It showed that 1 out of every 3 school districts in Connecticut told the state that it does not have “sufficient funding” to maintain or improve the air quality in their schools and 1 in 5 schools do not have a program to evaluate air quality. Questions were asked about the maintenance of school buildings, but not HVAC systems as a stand-alone.
The day after CT Public reported these results, the governor’s office reversed course and decided it would fund HVAC upgrades to the tune of $90 million.
John Elsesser from Coventry said that taking an inventory of school facilities is important.
"I think as much as these surveys are sometimes painful and costly, I think it's important because you can start then identifying long-term strategies for capital improvements. There's a public accountability and knowing that it's been looked at should be comforting to the parents and the teachers.”
On air quality, 17 of the 19 questions were scrapped, including if certain poisonous materials such as radon are a problem — and if so, whether repair is scheduled.
At Beardsley School in Bridgeport — which was built in 1904 and hasn't had a major renovation since 1985 — that survey showed the school identified air quality problems in six of the 17 areas and it has not yet been scheduled to be addressed.
”I don't think it's good to not have any accounting of where the schools are. It gives us a perspective on what the issues are," said former Bridgeport superintendent Fran Rabinowitz, who now leads the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. "It provides some accountability."
The district and school responses to the scaled-back survey have not been published by the state for the public to examine, as has been done in the past.
This void is happening as a growing number of educators say poor ventilation in their classrooms and other contaminants are making them sick. The state’s largest teachers union says that each year more educators are filing workers' compensation cases related to air quality issues in their schools.
If staff suspect that high doses of certain chemicals are making them sick at work, they can file a complaint. But teachers union officials say such air quality complaints don’t have much success because there are no standards for schools.
Only California and New Jersey have indoor air quality requirements for public schools and other government buildings. Scientists are calling for that to change.
The legislature is considering changing that. The Labor and Public Employees Committee is considering a bill that will set standards and require a "routine school indoor air quality assessment and ventilation monitoring program."
Sen. Cathy Osten, the co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, wants the state to bring back a more robust survey, like the one Diamantis scrapped.
"I think that having this data allows you to understand what schools need, and without this data, you're relying on one school board or one administration," she said.
School construction slows without data and during FBI probe
The state's school construction program is moving at a snail's pace, Elsesser said.
Nearly two years passed before the Lamont administration announced it would chip in $90 million for air quality upgrades. While Coventry waited, the district received nearly 200 air purifiers made by freshman students at the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering.
The grant program to distribute the $90 million for air quality upgrades wouldn't be required to be set up until early next year for districts to apply — nearly three years into the pandemic.
The drama surrounding the state’s school construction program — which includes the FBI issuing subpoenas for work Diamantis was involved in — has also slowed down other grants.
Coventry has been waiting four months for approval and funding from the state to replace an aged roof that is leaking into classrooms.
"Time is ticking. We’re up there patching almost every other week. Water is getting into buildings. The first [thing] you think of [is] mold, and you've got to keep that out of there. I get it that when the FBI is snooping down, you've got to retrench. We know that that’s the hidden effects of this whole scandal has not been addressed," said Elsesser.
The state is working to improve the system, Petra said.
That includes using the survey to better gauge the conditions of schools.
"We're going to consult more thoroughly with all of our stakeholders like the Department of Education, legislators and others to make sure that we're actually requesting the right information that we need that's most relevant to our needs. Today, HVAC systems. Tomorrow, it could be something else," said Petra. "We want to make sure we're asking the right questions and getting the most relevant data on to help us make decisions."
His office also plans to work with the attorney general to see if they can recoup the $106,000 the state already paid for that work to be done.
"The matter is under review with legal, but if possible, we're going to try to recoup the money for any work that wasn't performed," Petra said.
EDITOR'S NOTE, May 3, 2022:
CT Public made multiple attempts to interview representatives from Dude Solutions before this story was published but they initially declined. After publication of this story, a representative for Dude Solutions reached out to CT Public disputing the state’s claim that they didn’t complete the work they were hired to do. They provided the following statement:
“School districts all over the world use our software to successfully maintain the condition of their assets. This article refers to a contract for a subscription to our software, which was implemented. We were not hired to survey the condition of our client's assets. Therefore, the statement that “the work was never done” is factually inaccurate because it correlates our name and responsibility with work that we were not contracted to do.”
-Kevin Kemmerer, Dude Solutions’ CEO
To see the contract between CT’s Department of Administrative Services and Dude Solutions, which states the Office of School Construction sought "a software application that will collect, assess and analyze key metrics for all of the public school facilities in Connecticut," click here.