‘I don’t understand why’: Stamford facility costs may go up $2.2M, which concerns school board

Photo of Ignacio Laguarda
Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

STAMFORD — The proposed buildings portion of the Stamford schools budget for 2021-22 has an increase of $2.2 million compared to this year, causing confusion among some members of the Stamford Board of Education.

Most of that increase is due to additions to salaries and overtime of about $1.5 million. The rest is comprised of $750,000 more in part-time custodian work.

Board member Nicola Tarzia said the district has taken steps to curb overtime, which is back on the rise.

“I don’t understand why it’s going up,” he said, during a recent meeting. “It should be going down.”

Two new positions account for some of the increase in salaries for the facilities budget. Stamford schools recently hired David Patnaude to fill the new position of director of facilities in charge of capital projects, and promoted Kevin McCarthy to director of facilities in charge of operations.

Construction services are also increasing, from $450,000 to $600,000, which added to Tarzia’s frustration.

“Our new team is increasing in salaries but our services are increasing too, so it’s like a double increase for operations which is a little aggravating,” Tarzia said.

In total, the “building and grounds” portion of the 2021-22 proposed budget totals $25.3 million, an increase of 9 percent from $23.1 million in the current budget.

When talking about total overtime expenditures, McCarthy said the proposed figure of $1.65 million is a “decent number” for the district. He said there’s a lot of overtime associated with weekend events as well as trades work that is completed when students and staff are not inside buildings.

The figure also represents an improvement over both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, in which overtime expenditures were near or above $2.5 million.

Cindy Grafstein, a member of the Stamford Asset Management Group, said that overtime costs for the 2019-20 school year, when COVID-19 forced schools to closed, were down considerably. But the budget increased for this current year due to increased COVID-related cleaning.

For the upcoming school year, Grafstein said, “We’re anticipating going back to pre-COVID days where we’re back to full-fledged sports and activities.”

The district’s facilities management has experienced plenty of changes over the last five years. Most recently, it was controlled by an outside firm named ABM Industries, which oversaw the schools during the beginning of the mold crisis that continues to affect multiple school buildings.

The schools hired ABM in 2017 to replace another facilities company, AFB.

ABM was fired in 2019 for a number of reasons, including failure to develop a management plan for school buildings, failure to ensure the safe and efficient operation of all buildings, and failure to comply with indoor air quality regulations.

After ABM’s ouster, the district essentially kept facilities management in house, establishing the Stamford Asset Management Group, comprised of school and city officials.

Tarzia, who is the head of the school board’s Operations Committee, requested a breakdown of how much the district is spending to run facilities compared to previous years when an outside firm was used.

Member Mike Altamura echoed Tarzia’s sentiments from the meeting, questioning the budget increase.

“We’re spending a lot more money to have people working for us, which is great, but at the same time, we have to start cutting costs,” Altamura said.