The consultant hired to lead TUSD’s $92,500 strategic planning initiative met with district officials and was provided insight into their planning needs months before the district began soliciting contract bids, district emails and records show.

Before her company won TUSD’s strategic-planning contract, Cathy Mincberg, the CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems, was given a $1,400 sole-source contract to come to Tucson in October at the request of Superintendent H.T. Sanchez.

Sanchez said the October session was unrelated to the larger strategic planning project now underway. But district emails the Star received through a public-records request indicate otherwise.

A TUSD purchase order describes it as a “strategic planning session,” and an email Mincberg sent about the October contract includes the subject line “Quote for strategic planning.” Also, a letter she sent Sept. 23 to Yousef Awwad, TUSD’s deputy superintendent of operations, said, “The Center for Reform of School Systems is pleased to commit to a strategic planning session with the Tucson Unified School District on October 7, 2013 for a fee of $1,400 for expenses only. CRSS will invoice you after completion of the strategic planning session.”

Sanchez, who listed Mincberg as a reference on his résumé when he applied to lead TUSD, has said he had no involvement in selecting her firm to run the $92,500 planning project.

The superintendent declined to meet with a Star reporter last week to discuss the planning contracts but confirmed in an email Friday that he selected Mincberg for the October consultation because he had worked with her in Texas, where her firm is based.

A CRSS PowerPoint presentation summarizing the October session indicates it focused on setting and achieving a district vision looking five years ahead to 2018. It included such topics as educational, operations and demographics audits, making TUSD a “destination district,” and improving human resources, technology, custodial standards and facilities.

The larger $92,500 strategic-planning project is focused on having the community help develop a five-year plan for TUSD’s improvement. Three education consulting companies were invited to bid on that project, but only Mincberg’s CRSS submitted one.

The three invitations to bid were sent out just three days after the TUSD Governing Board, at Sanchez’s request, raised the ceiling for awarding contracts without a public process from $50,000 to $100,000.

Ongoing conversation

Awwad, the deputy superintendent, selected Mincberg’s firm for the $92,500 project. He initially said he identified the three potential bidders through an Internet search. On Friday, however, Awwad clarified that he picked two companies from the Internet and included Mincberg’s firm because he was familiar with it from the previous dealings.

Awwad also originally told the Star in February that he was unaware of Sanchez’s connection to Mincberg when he invited her to bid. He clarified on Friday that he knew the two had previously worked together, but he was unaware at the time that Mincberg was a job reference for Sanchez or that she had approached him about possible consulting work with her firm.

Mincberg was not given any details about the larger strategic planning initiative during the October collaboration, Sanchez said. “We were talking about culture and organizational change ideas, particularly in our operations area,” he said in a written response to the Star.

However, in the weeks that followed the October meeting, Mincberg and Sanchez continued to communicate via email and by phone, emails show.

On Nov. 6, more than a month before bids for the larger initiative were solicited, Mincberg wrote to Sanchez discussing pricing for a community event and board training — both of which are items included in the $92,500 agreement with her firm.

“Hi HT, Here you go,” she wrote in an email. “It is one slide and we can provide more detail but I wanted to get you pricing. It will include 2 board training sessions as well as the community event as well as all that needs to happen to set up the governance model, plan and begin work.”

Sanchez responded, “I like the plan. When can we talk to set dates?”

Despite the similarities between Mincberg’s Nov. 6 offer and the scope of work TUSD ultimately put out to bid in December, Sanchez wrote in an email to the Star that the two are not related.

In November, he wrote, Mincberg was proposing a rollout of recommendations she made regarding operations and change management — a process TUSD was not ready to move forward with, so no further discussion took place.

Confusion over scope

Sanchez acknowledged that the October contact gave Mincberg insight into the district that the other invited bidders did not have. Still, he said the process was fair. Both other invited bidders declined to comment.

“The reality is that when any vendor has worked with you previously, they have some additional knowledge of your organization and its workings,” Sanchez wrote in an email to the Star. “This would be the case with any vendor who has worked with us before and certainly is reflective of that reality in other organizations. However, this previous work did not result in CRSS being given an advantage in the award of the contract.”

CRSS was the only company solicited for the October planning effort, which is allowed because the contract was for less than $5,000.

“I contacted Cathy because I know and trust her and brought her here for one day to brainstorm with me to do what’s best for TUSD,” Sanchez wrote. “I did not seek out anyone else because I knew Cathy’s background and trusted her input, and the price quoted for this one-day visit was very reasonable and fair to the district.”

Sanchez and Mincberg worked together on strategic planning in his previous school district in Odessa, Texas. In addition to being a job reference, Mincberg also once tried to recruit Sanchez to her consulting team, unrelated emails showed.

Despite those ties, Sanchez said the award of a $92,500 contract to her firm was more of a “coincidence.”

However, emails obtained by the Odessa American showed that just days after he was named TUSD superintendent in June, Sanchez told Mincberg he would be in touch for strategic planning assistance.

That conversation wasn’t a promise to do business with Mincberg, Sanchez told the Star in February. He also said it wasn’t a discussion he’d had since arriving in Tucson in July. However, he is included in an email exchange with Mincberg during his Tucson tenure referencing strategic planning.

Mincberg started communicating with TUSD officials last September about what ultimately became the one-day Oct. 7 session. She quoted a price of $1,400 for the single visit, with the possibility of up to five visits for $7,000. After a TUSD staffer pointed out that multiple quotes would be required for a contract over $5,000, the agreement was limited to a single visit.

The emails show that questions arose from a staffer because, at that time, a scope of work hadn’t been written for services to be provided.

“Who do I get quotes from?” Karen Bynum, Sanchez’s administrative assistant, wrote to Awwad. “I don’t even know the scope of work. I don’t know what they are doing so I wouldn’t even know what other companies might provide the service to reach out for a quote. … Help me move forward with this if I am to secure quotes.”

In the end, TUSD had CRSS “redo the quote to reflect just one visit,” eliminating the need to seek further price quotes, the emails show.

In his email response to the Star on Friday, Sanchez wrote that written scopes of work are used for higher-level bids and that state rules do not require it for purchases under $15,000.

Second quote accepted

After the October session, Mincberg sent Sanchez a proposal to “assist with the change management process to transform TUSD.” It said the goal would be to train staff workers so they could drive lasting change on their own. It also would help build community support for the work.

“I have watched so many districts try to improve but fail to focus on the critical processes needed to both plan the changes and later to get their organization to adopt the new ways,” Mincberg wrote to Sanchez on Oct. 26. “I believe we can be your partner to create an effective, efficient and productive TUSD.”

By Oct. 31, TUSD had drafted a strategic planning scope of work. However, that scope of work wasn’t sent to any vendors until Dec. 13, after Awwad directed Sanchez’s administrative assistant to get written bids for the strategic planning work from CRSS and the other two other companies.

Emails show the CRSS quote was initially $98,500 — just $1,500 below the $100,000 threshold that would have required TUSD Governing Board approval. As a result, Kevin Startt, TUSD’s purchasing director, recommended a selection process open to more vendors.

Governing Board “approval is required for consulting contracts $100K and above,” Startt wrote to Awwad via email. “The vendor, (CRSS), offers additional consulting days at $3,500/day and additional travel for $1,200/2-day trip, so there is potential for additional work which could easily bump the original cost over $100K.”

Startt noted that the district could negotiate the total cost down by eliminating certain services or could propose a new cost for the total package.

TUSD suggested some work could be done by the district’s staff. Three days later, Mincberg submitted a quote for $92,500.

District officials said on Friday that the $92,500 agreement for services is not a contract but a purchase order. The purchase order allows the district to spend up to that amount.

Mincberg’s firm held the first public session as part of the $92,500 contract last month. About 200 teachers, students, administrators and selected members of the public took part in a series of presentations by education experts, followed by smaller group discussions.

That feedback, which is being analyzed by CRSS, will be used to help craft a five-year strategic plan that will focus on curriculum and instruction, finance, facilities, diversity and communication.

Sanchez said the money is being well spent.

“We were able to put together an important and meaningful event to bring together diverse members of our community to work together on the vision for the district,” he wrote to the Star, “and are pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response that has come with that event.”

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.