Arizona Daily Star reporter, Alexis Huicochea. 

Tucson’s largest school district has awarded a $92,500 strategic planning contract to a company headed by one of the new superintendent’s personal job references.

The company was one of three invited to bid on the contract. Because the value is less than $100,000, the district was not required to hold open bidding or seek approval from the district’s Governing Board.

Neither of the other two invited companies submitted bids.

The three invitations to bid were sent out just three days after the TUSD Governing Board, at Superintendent H.T. Sanchez’s request, raised the ceiling for awarding contracts without a public bid process from $50,000 to $100,000.

Tucson Unified School District’s five-year strategic planning initiative will kick off Feb. 25 with a conference led by five educational experts, several of whom have a connection to Sanchez, who took over leadership of the district in July.

The experts have all been recruited by an educational consulting company called the Center for Reform of School Systems. Its leader, Cathy Mincberg, not only worked with Sanchez on strategic planning in the district he ran in Texas, but also is listed as one of four references on his résumé.

Two other people leading the conference — three of the five — have worked with Sanchez on planning and training efforts in Texas. The group will lead discussions with students, parents, educators, community members, business leaders and elected officials about curriculum and instruction, finance, facilities, communication and diversity.

Sanchez, along with the Governing Board, school principals, the local chambers of commerce and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, selected who would be able to take part in discussions and offer feedback about what they want for the district.

No board approval

It’s nothing more than a coincidence that a contract worth more than $90,000 was awarded to a “professional acquaintance,” Sanchez said. The other two vendors, who declined to submit bids, were from San Francisco and Boston.

Because the services cost less than $100,000, the district administration, headed by Sanchez, was able to award the contract without submitting it to the Governing Board for approval.

Opening the process any further would not have been cost-effective, said TUSD Deputy Superintendent of Operations Yousef Awwad.

While Sanchez acknowledges he formulated the scope of work that would be sent to the vendors, he said he did not select who would be invited to submit quotes for services.

“In terms of any ties to the Center for Reform of School Systems, they’re an entity that provides board training across the United States and they have access to people who have knowledge and expertise beyond what I have access to,” Sanchez said. “The bottom line is, we have a process that I am outside of and they went through the process.”

Awwad said he was unaware of Sanchez’s connection to Mincberg when he selected the three invited vendors. He chose them by conducting an Internet search for educational consultant firms with experience in strategic planning.

TUSD Governing Board member Mark Stegeman said he would have preferred to see a consulting contract like this brought before the board.

“I think this raises the potential appearance of a conflict of interest. A contract of that nature should’ve gone through the board,” he said.

Stegeman noted that just days before the request for quotes went out, Sanchez recommended that the board raise the threshold for consulting contracts from $50,000 to $100,000 — a move Stegeman opposed.

“Consulting contracts have been an area of abuse in the district historically,” he said. “I doubt whether I would have supported this expenditure if it had come through the board.”

Stegeman’s four fellow board members all approved the change, which Sanchez said puts the district in alignment with state standards and law. The threshold was lower in the past because the district was under scrutiny by the state for procurement violations.

Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva has no qualms about the process. She agrees with Sanchez that the superintendent’s ties to the company are a “weird coincidence.”

“I don’t believe this was a private agreement,” she said. “Dr. Sanchez was not a part of the selection and we went through the legal process as we should have. It seems to me like this was the best firm to do the job or that it meets all of the qualifications.”

Downtown meeting Feb. 25

The Feb. 25 strategic planning kickoff will be at the new Tucson Electric Power headquarters, 88 E. Broadway, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Anyone can attend, but those who are not invited must sit in the back of the room and can only observe.

Each table will have a student, a teacher, college and university representatives, a business leader, an elected official and a facilitator to discuss five concepts:

  • Creating equity and using diversity in schools to prepare students to lead in a global community;
  • Whether it’s possible to ensure every student gets a quality education;
  • Dealing with a new financial reality;
  • Matching last-century schools to 21st-century needs;
  • Building community-district relationships through effective communication.

As part of the $92,500 contract, the Center for Reform of School Systems will use information generated at each table to identify common themes and statements. That information will be provided to the district to use in developing a strategic master plan, Sanchez said. The firm will also train the Governing Board on governance and oversight.

“This is not $90,000 for a one-day event,” Sanchez said. “It’s not a matter of flying in, giving a speech and leaving. It’s researching the district, understanding who we are. … When you look at the complexity and the size of the district — and understand that nothing like this has been done before at this level and scale with this level of transparency and visibility — we have to be dedicated to getting it right.”

The five-year plan is to be developed over the remainder of this school year and the district will operate under it starting in the fall. In the first year of implementation, there is likely to be visible change in some areas, but bigger pieces may not roll out for an additional year, Sanchez said.

For example, recommendations on curriculum and instruction can be implemented immediately through professional development and training. But facilities changes may take longer because the budget year will have already begun, with funds already assigned.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175.

On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea