San Jose school district denies improper lobbying charges
San Jose Unified School District offices are pictured in this file photo.

Officials with San Jose’s biggest school district denied charges they improperly hired lobbying firms to push a  teacher housing proposal—saying that at least one of the firms never lobbied for them at all, despite meeting with officials who would approve the plans.

The allegations stem from a Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report released late last year. The report found that San Jose Unified School District failed to disclose conflicts of interests and lobbying contracts related to a proposal to build affordable housing for teachers and staff.

In a special meeting on Tuesday, the school district’s board rejected concerns that the contracts with two different firms working on the housing project had been inappropriate. But it agreed to provide more transparency around such agreements in the future.

Lobbying?

The firms that worked on the project are Schoennauer Company, LLC, a registered lobbyist with the city with experience in land-use law, and Snider Consulting.

“The contract we hired (Schoennauer) for, they were not lobbying,” said SJUSD board president Brian Wheatley. “They were helping us navigate all the various rules and regulations both with the city and the county because we are educators.”

A report from district staff said the grand jury’s report was based on “unfounded opinion and irrelevant” and that some grand jury members “were fiery and appeared self-interested in reaching a specific outcome.”

Schoennauer partner Erik Schoennauer met with San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo on at least two occasions to discuss the affordable housing project. Schoennauer, however, said he didn’t lobby for the project during the meetings. Rather, he said, he met with Liccardo to ensure transparency between the city and district about the project.

“The grand jury wanted to question how communication happened. The fact is, the district wants lots of communication to work in partnership with the city and community to develop staff housing,” Schoennauer said.

The report also accused Snider Consulting founder Kelly Snider of not disclosing that her home sits yards away from a finalist site for the housing project. Snider and the district did not believe her house’s proximity to a potential site was a conflict of interest and didn’t believe that it had to be disclosed.

Along with the district, she said the grand jury report focused too much on how the district was communicating with the community instead of analyzing the affordable housing project.

The grand jury also found problems with the district’s lobbying at the state level. In 2019, the district hired Ball/Frost Group, LLC, a Sacramento-based advocacy and legislative policy firm, according to the report. But the contract it signed with Ball/Frost wasn’t made readily available to the public, and the district didn’t clearly and fully disclose the work Ball/Frost was doing, the report found.

A Ball/Frost representative declined to comment.

Homes for teachers

The district believes the affordable housing project is needed, as teachers and staff have repeatedly told the public they are having difficulty buying a home in the high-price area.

The district is considering several sites in the area. Early discussions involved closing either Leland High School or Bret Harte Middle School to build housing, with each location hosting 75 to 325 units.

The project received considerable pushback from some residents concerned that it would decrease property values, and increase traffic and endanger pedestrians in the neighborhood. Opponents also believe it would cost taxpayers too much.

“My issue from the very beginning has been just a complete lack of professionalism in the handling of this and a continuous pattern of deception and lack of transparency,” said Tobin Gilman, a parent of two former district students, who claimed the project made “no financial sense at all.”

The project has been largely put on hold as the district focuses on returning to in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to city officials. According to the project’s website, teachers would be able to move into the affordable housing in three to five years.

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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