A last minute addition to the agenda of the May 11, 2020 meeting of the Manchester Board of School Committee should raise eyebrows and some very serious questions.  Barry Brensinger, of Manchester Proud fame, is offering his services to a committee he suggests be formed to evaluate the district’s space needs in light of the Manchester Proud “strategic plan” he helped engineer.  While Brensinger, an architect and owner of Lavallee Brensinger Architects, offers his services pro-bono to the district “through Manchester Proud” (more on that below), he does so with the caveat that it not disqualify him from bidding on the work he wants to help define.  This is critical given that he would actively participate with the committee in evaluating the bids that are submitted in response to the Request For Proposal (RFP) this committee would develop.  

His proposal has him working to develop the scope of work, submitting a bid in response to the RFP, then evaluating all of the bids that are submitted, including his own, as part of the committee he proposes be established.  Nice work if you can get it.

2.0 on the way?

As readers of Oh My BLOG! know, among the reasons I opposed the adoption of the proposed Manchester Proud Strategic Plan was its failure to address the glut of space in the city’s schools, caused by the significant decline in enrollment.  Despite requests and entreaties by several board members to include a review of facilities, Manchester Proud refused, essentially saying it would be too involved a process.  It wouldn’t even consider the 2018 Long Range Facilities Plan done by CMK Architects in conjunction with the board’s redistricting efforts.  That study took about nine months to complete.

Among other reasons, I thought a strategic plan that failed to address the obvious overabundance of space was folly.  It would seem that Brensinger now agrees that space needs to be addressed, only he proposes a process where he and his firm will get paid to do it.  Make no mistake, if the board approves this approach, you can bet that, in addition to being paid by Manchester Proud to sit on this committee, he will ultimately be awarded the bid to do the work, if for no other reason then no credible bidder will submit a proposal through a process designed and overseen by a competitor.  It would be a total waste of their time to participate in a process where the proverbial fix is apparently in.

According to Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt, the board approved, on a 15 to zero vote, the issuance of an RFP for an

“independent facilities study…focused more on costing out repairs vs. needs of programs and looking at age of buildings vs. consolidation so that we have concrete information to begin the tough, but needed discussion and decisions about too much high school space, etc.”  

If the district is going to tackle the issue of surplus space and how to address it, this is exactly the kind of approach it should be taking.  In saying that, I note the CMK Plan did not, in any meaningful way, address the condition of the district’s school space.  The proposed RFP is not one that requires a complicated assessment or process to evaluate.  In truth, the CMK Plan, coupled with the district’s current Capital Improvement Program (CIP) inventory, which includes already identified needed repair, renovation and upgrade projects, means the study Goldhardt wants should be able to take place in short order without being arduous.

Opposes Brensinger proposal

Instead of that simple, straightforward assessment, Brensinger’s proposal turns the proposed facilities assessment into an extension of the Manchester Proud so-called strategic plan, writing:  

In February of 2020, Manchester’s Board of School Committee adopted “Our Community’s Plan for Manchester’s Future of Learning”, the “Plan”, as a blueprint for guiding the District’s future.  Now, the District’s leadership and Board of School Committee are seeking understanding of the status and potential of the District’s school facilities, in order to further inform decisions regarding the implementation and physical embodiment of the “Plan”.

That’s a pretty clever segue for a fellow who said the assessment of facilities was misplaced in a school district master plan.  He then goes on to outline a rather involved process, starting with this:

The following outlines an approach to evaluating MSD’s facilities needs and opportunities; one that will balance practical realities with an aspirational look at how our District’s investment in facilities can best serve our schools and community. This approach is expected to yield timely and relevant information, be cost-effective, and include the engagement of stakeholders and community needed for a high probability of success. Upon its successful conclusion, the proposed process will provide a clear and directional, albeit high level, Facilities Master Plan for the District.

After several bullet points that would be considered, he dismisses the idea of “engaging an arms-length consultant and producing another report” in favor of a “team approach to facilities assessment and planning.”  Many see that “arms-length consultant” as someone without the ties and entanglements that come with “someone in the know” who can provide the necessarily dispassionate and objective information the board needs.  In other words, the idea when the vote was taken was to find someone with a” fresh set of eyes” and no perceived or real allegiances to any politician, school or outcome.

Brensinger, instead, proposes a committee that would bypass the board’s normal process for such considerations, a process that is fully open to and transparent with the pubic.  The committee would be comprised of:  

  • one to two representatives from the district office,
  • two to three members of the board, including what he calls a “Team Facilitator,” but doesn’t define, an
  • “Educational Planning Consultant” to “Lead exploration of learning environments and development of optimal facilities configuration…
  • Matuszewski Architects “(to provide) Lead assessment of existing school facilities…”  Brensinger calls this a “logical extension of services provided” for the 2018 study Manchester Proud refused to consider, and 
  • his firm, Lavallee Brensinger Architects, to “Provide overall process coordination, planning assistance, and alignment with the (Manchester Proud) ‘Plan’.”  And, to “Assist MSD and Manchester Proud with related communications and community engagement.”

Not for nothing, Brensinger said that Manchester Proud would not be going away when presenting their final plan to the community in February; that it would continue to its work to see to the implementation of its plan.  Knowing that, one has to wonder whether or not he had this facilities study, which he wants to integrate into the same Manchester Proud strategic plan that was inappropriate for facilities issues, in mind as the “next step” for Manchester Proud; one he and his firm could financially benefit from.

Brensinger next outlines the process, which includes “BOSC review and adoption of Assessment and Planing Team Approach (May 11th).”  This is disturbing on multiple fronts.  

Beaudry: Committee bypassed

First, Girard at Large has learned that this item is on the board agenda because Finance and Facilities Committee Chairman Arthur Beaudry (D-Ward 9) disallowed it on the committee’s May 12, 2020 meeting.  Beaudry told Girard at Large that there were already three presentations on the agenda, which has over 300 pages in documentation, when he was asked by board Vice-Chair Leslie Want (D-Ward 4) to put it on the agenda, and that he was told there would be no documentation to include on the agenda as it wouldn’t be ready until the Friday before the meeting.  Want relayed Beaudry’s decision to Mayor Joyce Craig (D-Ward 1) who, despite not having information in hand by the agenda deadline, placed it on the agenda for the full board.  Girard at Large has also learned that the documents were submitted late Wednesday afternoon for inclusion on the board agenda, despite the standard and well known Tuesday at Noon deadline.  This is an even greater curiosity given that the documents submitted for the agenda are entitled:

May 5, 2020 (emphasis added)

Next, the process removes the Committee on Finance and Facilities entirely from the process of selecting the consultant, except that it allows the committee to recommend approval the final RFP to the full board.   In every other way, the team Brensinger proposes to coordinate, assumes the role of the committee that is explicitly designated to do the work.  It’s an end run around the elected body.

Step Two of the proposed process will run through the end of October and include a whole lot of “information gathering” from “stakeholder groups” with “visioning workshops” and “ongoing communications and community engagement.”  In other words, it’s Manchester Proud 2.0 and they will involve the same “usual suspects” at the expense of the general public.  One has to wonder whether or not their approach this time will exclude the media and Manchester Public Television as did all of their other community outreach meetings in the first go around.  There’s no question but that the pubic “engaged” will be the same special interests whose input overrode that of the ordinary parents, citizens and taxpayers who attempted to be heard.

Craig: Breaks board rules…again

Step Three will be to take the months of November and December to “evaluate and select options.”  Nothing like doing that during the holiday season, when you’re specifically engaged and invested “stakeholders” will be sure to show up while everybody else is busy about the business of tending to their families during the holidays.

Step Four is, of course, presenting the report, something Manchester Proud was almost six months late in doing with its original strategic plan.  They were just too overwhelmed with the information they were receiving, don’t you know.  So much they didn’t expect…

As to the cost of all this, Brensinger writes:

An overall budget for the proposed facilities assessment and planning process will be prepared in June for BOSC review and approval. The educational planning consultant will be selected through a qualifications focused process, including the submission of formal responses to an RFP. The assessment and coordination services of Matuszewski Architects and Lavallee Brensinger Architects will be provided on a pro-bono basis through Manchester Proud. Drafting and consulting engineering services, to extent required, will be budgeted as allowances and invoiced at cost. Note: The pro-bono services of Matuszewski and Lavallee Brensinger Architects are offered with the stipulation that they not be excluded from competing for future projects with MSD and the City of Manchester.  (emphasis in the original.)

Does “provided on a pro-bono basis through Manchester Proud” mean that Manchester Proud will pay them for their participation so the school district doesn’t have to?  That’s a really big question as it gets to whether or not the study will truly be an independent assessment of the district’s space needs or one designed to implement Manchester Proud’s vision of the schools, which has the support of its stakeholders but arguably not the broader public inasmuch as it failed to address several issues, including how it’s enormous costs would be paid for.  

Brenisnger even so helpfully includes a draft Request for Qualifications and Proposal Educational Planing Services Facilities Master Plan.  Needless to say, it goes well beyond the scope of what the board has already approved and what Goldhardt and Business Administrator Karen DeFrancis have spent more than two months developing.  According to Goldhardt, the original RFP is close to completion.  He said while he believes Brensinger brought forward his proposal “as a means to try and assist” with the RFP in the works.

If they (the board) want his proposal, the will have to reverse themselves on their previous 15-0 motion on the RFP we have been working on…As much as I care for and support Barry (Brensinger), I don’t support his proposal.  Facilities study needs to be independent.  We have an approved RPF in process.