Connecticut spends hundreds of millions of dollars on improving school buildings in the state, but there are some new questions about how closely these projects are being monitored.
Republicans are calling for a legislative inquiry into the office in charge of those contracts.
NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with State Rep. Tami Zawistowski (R-East Granby), the caucus policy co-chair. She's also on the Appropriations Committee, as well.
Mike Hydeck: "So the FBI is now investigating the man who was overseeing the school construction projects across our state. The allegations include he tried to actually dictate which contractors were being used. Some towns like Tolland say they were told they wouldn't get state reimbursements for the construction if they didn't use his preferred contractors. Do you believe that whole process to be true?"
Tami Zawistowski: "You know, the news keeps on growing and growing on this. We keep on hearing for more and more school districts that they felt pressured, whether or not they actually followed the guidance from Diamantis. I don't have any firsthand knowledge of the investigation that's going on, the criminal investigation. But I think there needs to be an independent legislative look at this."
Mike Hydeck: "When you Diamantis, that's Kosta Diamantis. He was the man in charge of school construction. What does it say, the way our state by and large handles all of this money for projects like this? Should changes be made here? You're on the Appropriations Committee, you see where money comes into the coffers and leaves. What should change, do you think?"
Tami Zawistowski: "Well, you know, I've been on Appropriations for a while, and I think my biggest frustration has been that, you know, we were asked to fund a wide variety of programs, we don't have any metrics on how well they work. Instead of funding things year after year, we should be funding things that work and eliminating the things that don't, you know. We really need to have an accountability subcommittee with members of both finance and Appropriations to handle that job. I think we need to have more oversight on all areas that we are funding, we owe this to the taxpayers."
Mike Hydeck: "So does that mean a commission should be started and be able to kind of go line by line through some of these really quite big contracts?"
Tami Zawistowski: "The Appropriations Committee actually has a structure to do that, but I think there would be some benefit in having members of the Finance Committee involved as well. The subcommittee on Appropriations has not met for the whole time that I've been there. I think it just needs to be expanded and activated."
Mike Hydeck: "What about the possibility, considering schools is where almost every state spends most of their money, whether it's funding education in the classroom or constructing buildings to surround our kids, should there be a separate committee just for schools considering that's such a large budget item?"
Tami Zawistowski: "Well, we have subcommittees in appropriations, so some of that is covered at this point. And there are recommendations made on the educational cost-sharing programs. There's also other programs that are involved in education, the education committee works on as well. So there is some communication there. But I think really, our focus should be on effectiveness."
Mike Hydeck: "Yeah, and the effectiveness, I mean, considering we have all of these committees and this still is able to happen, something needs to change. So there are reports also in the Hartford Courant saying that a contractor or maybe more than one were kept out of the bidding process. When it comes to hazmat jobs of tearing down the schools, too, and in this case, the current reports that the attorney general and the Lamont administration were made aware of this, is that your take on the situation as well?"
Tami Zawistowski: "That's what I've heard. I've heard that the memo came out from that demolition contractor in early 2020. Possibly April, I'm not sure the exact date. This has been around for a while but the legislature, as far as I know, has not known about it."
Mike Hydeck: "Does the Appropriations Committee have any power to step in and say, 'hey, wait a minute, we need to stop this and go through this with a fine tooth comb? Or does that have to go up to the governor's office? How does that work?"
Tami Zawistowski: "I think we need to get an inspector general in to take an independent look, I think that's something that since the governor's office and his administration is involved, I think this should be a legislative initiative. And I think that we should be able to whether whichever committee it goes through, should be getting an inspector general involved from outside."
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Mike Hydeck: "And that process takes how long? Does the governor just have to appoint that? Can your committees be involved in that as well?"
Tami Zawistowski: "I'm not sure of the exact procedures for it, but it should not happen from the governor's office. It should be initiated by the legislature because it is the governor's administration that will be having to be looked into."
Mike Hydeck: "So in addition to trying to relieve overcrowded schools, many of which we have, another major concern has been making sure heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems get proper upgrades. For a long time, the state's position has always said 'look, that's the local town's responsibility for that,' but with this pandemic two years in, COVID has proven to be a public health issue. Should that cost be figured differently? Maybe having the state have more of a say in that?"
Tami Zawistowski: "I believe that the current budget that we're looking at right now has money for some of that, the money from, you know, the various federal programs that we're getting. These are important upgrades for the health and safety of our children that are in these classrooms. You have to realize that we just got the budget last week, so we're still working our way through it."
Mike Hydeck: "But the way of doing heating, ventilating, and air conditioning has been the same. It was a responsibility for the towns, should that change? Do you think the Connecticut Conference on Municipalities should say 'look, we know the age of a roof, we know when that's going to be replaced.' Can't there be industry standards on HVAC systems and make those part of the way they figured the dollars in?"
Tami Zawistowski: "What I think should also happen is I think the superintendents have a responsibility to understand some of the maintenance requirements of the school buildings that are under their purview. I'm not sure that's happening as well. But yeah, it needs to be I think joint. I think there might be an opportunity for the state to take a look at continuing maintenance, but I think the actual responsibility for getting the work done does need to stay with the school districts because they are the ones that are on the job."