Amid a wave of scrutiny over awarding a six-figure public contract to a private Catholic school, Mayor Sam Liccardo suggested reopening the contract to other schools — but his council colleagues didn’t agree.
On Wednesday, City Manager Dave Sykes recommended keeping the current contract with Cristo Rey intact and instead, perform better outreach to schools for future bids. A council committee unanimously agreed.
“I do think there’s a path forward where we do keep the Cristo Rey contract intact and go through a process where we engage other school districts in the city,” Sykes said during the Rules and Open Government Committee meeting. “Our outreach fell a little short. The city does a lot of procurements and a lot of different types of engaging. We do see an opportunity to do more robust outreach and get others to the table.”
The mayor’s proposal to rebid the controversial contract came after San José Spotlight’s report highlighted concerns from superintendents from the two largest public high school districts — East Side Union High School District and San Jose Unified School District — who said they were not originally notified of the proposal.
At a City Council meeting in early August, the city awarded $838,264 in funds for a work-study program with Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School —co-founded by the mayor and his wife, among 18 others. More than 3,000 notifications were sent out through an online platform called BidSync, but Cristo Rey was the only qualifying candidate.
The program is a partnership between the school and the city, where 24 students will receive work experience or a paid internship at City Hall for the next four years. But following San José Spotlight’s reporting, a national watchdog organization announced an investigation into the matter, calling the city’s process “unconstitutional.”
At the meeting Wednesday, Councilmember Johnny Khamis raised concerns to Sykes about how “fair” the bidding process was and if it needs to change, even recommending the city look at conducting a potential study on how the process works.
“I want to use this as a learning experience,” said Khamis. “What could have gone better?”
Sykes said that though he did feel the process was fair, that the city has performed more targeted outreach with other proposals.
“It’s not uncommon on various types of procurement for us to do a targeted type of outreach,” added Sykes. “We do have the capacity to do that. When we do an RFP and people feel left out, that’s a sign that we need to improve the outreach process.”
The mayor originally proposed opening the contract for other bidders for the next three years after speaking directly with East Side Union High School District Superintendent Chris Funk, one of the two superintendents who told this news organization he wasn’t notified about the proposal.
In his memo, Liccardo said he wanted to notify “senior staff” at all three school districts via phone or in person about a potential new contact to ensure they had a chance to bid.
“I think that the challenge is this square peg was being fit into a round hole. We do lots of requirements very successfully on BidSync,” Liccardo said. “High schools don’t bid on things at the city. So emails went to the people that would have no interest in this. I think we just used the wrong approach here. And I think a phone call could probably solve a lot of that.”
Councilmember Sylvia Arenas added that when the proposal was sent out may have contributed to a lack of responses.
“School systems wind down around April and May and they’re trying to wrap up the the end of the year,” Arenas said. “I think the timing had a lot to do with maybe the lack of folks who came forward.”
Funk said in an interview Monday that while he isn’t interested in seeing Cristo Rey miss out on its contract, he was “pleased” the mayor wants to create a more transparent and inclusive process. Funk also wrote a column for this news organization criticizing the mayor and the city’s decision to award public dollars to a private religious school.
“I wasn’t interested in having Cristo Rey lose out on what contracts already been established — I was more interested in making sure that the city clean up their procurement process and how they outreach to the school districts,” Funk said. “So that something like this doesn’t happen in the future.”
But Khamis, who said he received many “angry emails” over the contract, said it’s not within the “purview of the city” to fund education programs.
“The fact that some of these school districts are feeling left out — I think they should should have the full picture of what we are doing to help education because I don’t want the world to know that we’re not doing anything,” he said.
Planned Parenthood Funding
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, committee members moved forward with a proposal to fund up to $250,000 for Planned Parenthood clinics after the nonprofit organization opted out of Title X, a program that provides grants for birth control and reproductive health care services.
The health care provider refused to comply with a “gag rule” mandated by President Donald Trump that now makes it illegal for any Title X recipient to provide patients with information on how or where to get an abortion.
“While we support the county’s lead role in improving public health in Santa Clara County, San Jose women face a health emergency that requires a fast and coordinated response,” said Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas in the funding proposal. “Our residents who are mostly under-insured women and families will lose access to basic health care services because of the reduction in funding.”
But some lawmakers raised concerns about securing enough funds to help Planned Parenthood. Councilmember Dev Davis said she wants to explore using “private funds” instead of taxpayer money as an alternative solution.
“I am very supportive of this and I want us to be able to move forward if we have the funds,” Davis said. “But I also know that as we’ve discussed, we have to fill our potholes, we have to provide our infrastructure and we have to provide other services like parks and libraries and public safety. And so we have to be very cautious with every dollar we spend on something that is not a core service.”
While Khamis also supported the motion, he cited concerns with expanding new services when vital infrastructure, public amenities and staffing the city’s police department need to be prioritized first.
“I would like for the county to pay for all of it,” said Khamis. “Why aren’t we asking the county to pay 100 percent of the bill? It’s 100 percent their purview.”
But Carrasco fired back, saying that while the city has to be “diligent” about how it spends money, it should fund women’s health care services instead of lesser priorities such as lunch programs for seniors, a cineplex projector, or a fireworks show.
“All someone has to do is a PRA to see what we fund. Is that potholes and pavement? Is that all Parks and Recreation? I would say that I would rather have my money go defend women’s bodies and their choices,” said Carrasco. “Women’s bodies are under attack.”
“And yes, maybe the county will take care of it,” she added. “I would like to be in partnership with our county because we serve 36,000 women.”
The Santa Clara County Supervisors will vote on exploring options to fund Planned Parenthood on Sept 10.
Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.