San Jose superintendents raise concern over six-figure award to Catholic school
Photo courtesy of Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School.

Two leading superintendents from the three public high school districts in San Jose say the city failed to notify them of a six-figure grant proposal for a work-study program that was instead awarded to a private, Catholic school.

Two weeks ago, the San Jose City Council unanimously voted to award a contract to the sole qualifying candidate — Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, a Catholic school that educates students from low-income families.

The nearly million dollar grant will fund a work-study program — a partnership between the school and the city, where 24 students will receive work experience or a paid internship at City Hall until June 2023.

The $838,264 in funds for the program are paid directly to Cristo Rey to also help subsidize tuition costs for these students. According to the school’s website, yearly tuition costs per student are $15,750. For students participating in the work-study program, the “fees generated by the students’ work account for about 50 percent of the cost of their tuition.”

“This agreement will provide San Jose high school students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds with valuable work experience and access to mentorship opportunities,” said Lee Wilcox, chief of staff to city manager Dave Sykes, in a memo to the City Council. “The city will receive well-trained, reliable student workers to complete administrative and clerical tasks across various city departments.”

But at least two education leaders are saying they didn’t get a fair shot to compete for the public dollars.

“My office — the superintendent’s office — did not receive any information about this,” said Superintendent Chris Funk from the East Side Union High School District. “There are only three superintendents in the city of San Jose that have high schools. And why would you not want to engage with the superintendents when you’re talking about a contract worth a million dollars?”

Funk said the first time he learned about the grant proposal was at Tuesday’s meeting when councilmembers had voted to award the grant to Cristo Rey. In addition, he raised concerns that the grant money was awarded to a for-profit, religious institution rather than a public school with less resources.

“To me, that’s unconscionable that we’re using taxpayer money to underwrite parochial school tuition,” added Funk. “We have free public schools, free public education and underserved communities. We have families that can’t afford the $15,000 tuition, so they would love to have an opportunity to provide enrichment opportunities for their own kids at the city.”

San Jose Unified School District Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said she wasn’t notified by City Hall about the opportunity to bid for the public dollars, either.

“We have a lot of students in our system who are looking for work experiences that are meaningful, and it would have been great for them to be able to access this opportunity, and then come back and contribute after they graduate from college in the community they grew up in,” Albarrán said. “It’s disappointing. So I think it’s a real missed opportunity for us.”

According to documents requested by San José Spotlight, both East Side Union High School and San Jose Unified School Districts are listed as schools that were emailed about the bid proposal for the funding, though city leaders redacted the names of officials who were contacted in each school district because of “privacy concerns.”

Albarrán said her staff searched her inbox repeatedly for an email containing information about the proposal or a link to the BidSync website but was met with no luck. Albarrán said she isn’t surprised that she wasn’t notified because her public school district has experienced challenges communicating with Mayor Sam Liccardo.

“I couldn’t find anything but I’m actually not surprised either,” added Albarrán. “It’s been a challenge with this particular administration. We’re the largest school district and have very little communication from the city. We’ve had eras where the relationship with the city has been good, but I would say under this particular mayor, it hasn’t been very good.”

Awarding taxpayer dollars to Jesuit school

Funk added that it was peculiar that the word “Jesuit” appeared nowhere in a city memo that recommended awarding the contract to Cristo Rey — though that’s part of the school’s title, which was co-founded by Liccardo and his wife.

But city officials insist that there was no preference toward the school because of its religious affiliation. The memo to the City Council said that Cristo Rey is a “private school located in San Jose that is part of the Cristo Rey Network.”

According to Rosario Neaves, a spokesperson for the city manager’s office, “the administration, as always, made every effort to highlight who the agreement was with.”

“One of the concerns, quite frankly, was any potential argument that there was a church and state issue,” added City Attorney Rick Doyle who said the proposal “doesn’t play favorites with any denomination or religious institution.”

Documents obtained by this news organization show the city posted the bid on an online platform called BidSync which reached 3,000 prospective schools and organizations across the country. In addition, the city uploaded the proposal to its website and sent emails to 69 schools and districts. Only 23 schools and organizations opened and viewed the email containing the proposal, but Cristo Rey was the lone respondent to the city’s proposal. The schools were notified in April and had a little less than a month to respond.

At the Aug. 6 council meeting, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez questioned the bidding process and outreach efforts, mentioning that both public school districts had previously indicated interest in a work-study program.

Councilmember Raul Peralez also raised concerns.

“My concern was in regards to the timing,” Peralez said. “It was concerning in regards to the fact that only one school responded. To me that said that there was something else in the way from these schools participating.”

Doyle assured that the process was competitive and “open to any and all schools.”

Consulting firms received bid information

While the proposal was distributed to schools outside California, a school had to be a high school located in San Jose in order to qualify. But out of the 23 organizations that viewed the proposal, several were not even schools.

Many were consulting firms such as Delia Coolridge Inc. from New Jersey and Gremark Consultancy Inc. from Connecticut, raising eyebrows from the superintendents who thought it was “highly unusual,” considering the mayor’s involvement with the Jesuit school.

Although Liccardo was a co-founder of Cristo Rey, Doyle said the mayor did not have to recuse himself from the vote because he doesn’t have a financial stake in the school.

At the meeting, Liccardo said it’s “no secret” that he’s been a supporter of Cristo Rey in “helping them get up and running.”

But the fact that the mayor was a founding member, added Doyle, does not constitute a conflict of interest.

“We’ve looked at this,” said Doyle. “He’s no longer on the Board of Directors. It comes up from time to time, but there is no conflict.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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