Norwalk Chief of Staff says City is ‘confident’ NHS project won’t be impacted
Connecticut officials have notified at least two municipalities that the State will not honor financial promises made by Konstantinos Diamantis, who is now at the center of a federal criminal investigation.
Norwalk is not affected, Chief of Staff Laoise King said Friday.
Over the past three months, local officials in Farmington and Hartford received letters from the State’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review informing them that the anticipated reimbursement rates for planned school projects were out of line with state rules.
The decisions have created turmoil in the towns and forced them to reassess how they will pay for millions of dollars in building costs they had expected the state to cover, and legislators are looking for a political fix.
Diamantis, who ran the school grants program for more than six years and served as deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, was removed from his government positions on Oct. 29, 2021 — around the same time that the state was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury.
Since then, Gov. Ned Lamont has appointed new people to oversee the State’s school building program and instructed them to review dozens of school construction projects, toward which the State has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Norwalk ‘confident,’ ‘not pressured’
Norwalk has multiple school construction projects: the new Ponus Ridge lower school was completed recently and the City is getting close to finishing renovations at Jefferson Elementary School. Work on three new schools are yet to begin, as approval was recently granted for a new Cranbury Elementary School, the Board of Education ponders its options for a new Norwalk High School and the City negotiates to buy property in South Norwalk, to provide a site for a neighborhood school. A plan to build a new home for Columbus Magnet School was scrapped as the school will instead move into Ponus.
In December 2019, State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) cited a long-term relationship with Diamantis in explaining the change in plans from renovating Norwalk High to constructing a new building. The State Legislature later approved an unusually high rate of reimbursement for that construction, 80%, based on the facility allowing 200 students from surrounding towns to attend magnet programs as a pilot program.
“As you know we have five recent/current school construction projects. We have quite a bit of contact and interaction with the Office of School Construction Grants. However, the vast majority of our interactions are with OSCG staff, in particular Michelle Dixon and Robert Celmer. We have had limited interaction with Mr. Diamantis,” King said Friday.
She said, “We are confident that the inquiries into the OSCG will not delay or impact the Norwalk High School project. Norwalk High and its reimbursement rate were granted through legislation, approved by the Connecticut General Assembly and signed by the Governor. You can find it in section 5 of Public Act 20-8. It is very different from the situation in Hartford and Farmington where officials relied on assurances from Mr. Diamantis.”
In mid-February, the spotlight of scrutiny on Diamantis’ dealings swung toward Tolland, where officials hired the Plainfield-based Construction Advocacy Professionals, or CAP, to first oversee installation of portable classrooms at the Birch Grove Primary School in June, according to contracts obtained by the Connecticut Mirror.
Then, in July, CAP hired Diamantis’ daughter Anastasia, documents state.
Tolland gave CAP another $460,000 worth of work in September. Tolland Superintendent of Schools Walter Willett issued a written statement to The Hartford Courant, alleging that local officials in Tolland were pressured by Diamantis to choose CAP and another contractor, D’Amato Construction, for school construction work.
Norwalk Public Schools has not hired CAP in any capacity, NPS Chief of Staff and Communications Brenda Wilcox Williams said.
Norwalk hired Construction Solutions Group to oversee its new school construction and renovations.
King said Norwalk has “never been asked or pressured” by OSCG to use a particular contractor or vendor.
“The City has a very formal bidding and RFP procurement process to select consultants and contractors. This process takes place completely independently of the OSCG,” King said Friday. “None of our projects fall into the category of Emergency Projects, and we have not used the state’s emergency contractors list.”
Duff did not reply to an email asking about the situation.
Farmington and Hartford
As part of the ongoing review of school construction projects, the State sent letters to local officials in Farmington and Hartford, informing the municipalities that the State will not follow through on financial commitments made by Diamantis.
In both cases, the State told local officials that Diamantis had incorrectly calculated how much money the state would cover for the construction of school administrative offices.
Noel Petra, who was placed in charge of the school grant program following Diamantis’ exit, also explained that State law prohibited the office from setting a higher reimbursement rate for those projects.
“The Office of School Construction Grants and Review recognizes that the district was previously given different information regarding a higher reimbursement rate for the Board of Education offices,” Petra wrote to town officials in Farmington. “Unfortunately, that information was contrary to statute, and therefore we are not able to justify using it.”
The State’s decision to backtrack on past funding pledges could be extremely costly for the local governments that are affected.
The State’s decision to cut the reimbursement rate for part of the Farmington High School project could cost that town $915,000 that it didn’t budget.
And in Hartford, City officials may need to come up with an additional $16 million the State promised to cover as part of the Bulkeley High School project.
Lora Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative Services, which oversees the school grant program, said Farmington and Hartford are the only municipalities to receive formal letters adjusting the reimbursement rates.
But she said the State also clarified the reimbursement rules for other municipalities that were just getting started with their procurement process for school projects.
Lamont and a group of high-ranking State officials held a press conference last week to emphasize the reforms they are making to the school construction grants and to highlight their attempts to instill public confidence in a program that remains the focus of an ongoing investigation.
“We have rebuilt the program already into a much more transparent and trustworthy program,” Petra told the crowd of reporters who gathered in the Capitol.
“We’ve met with dozens of the school districts. We’ve met with dozens of legislators. We’ve met with all of the industry stakeholders,” he added. “We have worked hand in hand with everyone to identify problems.”
The decision to reduce the State grant funding in Farmington has already set off a political backlash in that town.
Farmington’s Board of Education, the town Council and the local school building committee all responded to the letter from the State by voicing shock and outrage.
Many of those officials said Diamantis made repeated promises in meetings that the State would cover more than 28% of Farmington’s new school administrative offices.
Yet town officials were informed in December that the State was only willing to pay for 14% of those costs.
“It’s not only disappointing. In some respects, it’s unacceptable, based on the conversations we had and the work we’ve done,” Meg Guerrera, the chairwoman of the Farmington High School Building Committee, said during a public meeting in December. “I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that. I’m sure we all probably feel that way at this moment.”
Farmington’s elected leaders said they relied on the reimbursement rates that Diamantis offered as part of their pitch to residents, who voted in a referendum to fund the new high school and related office space.
“We went out with numbers that were given to us by a representative of the state, and now we don’t have those numbers,” said Christine Arnold, a member of Farmington’s Board of Education. “And it’s not a little bit. It’s a significant amount.”
A written promise
A similar situation has also played out in recent weeks in Hartford, where City officials could face an even larger funding shortfall.
In that case, Diamantis vowed that the state would cover 95% of the $29.5 million for the administrative offices that are part of Hartford’s Bulkeley High School renovation.
Yet the new leaders at the Office of School Construction Grants and Review said in a Feb. 22 letter that the State can only cover 40%, or about $11.8 million, of the overall cost.
Howard Rifkin, Hartford’s Corporation Counsel, sent a letter back to the State at the beginning of March pushing back against the State’s decision to slash the reimbursement rate.