School run by San Jose mayor’s wife scores city grant
The San Jose City Council voted 7-3 on June 20 to approve a five-year $862,000 grant to fund a work-study student program for Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. File photo.

    A San Jose private school run by none other than the mayor’s wife is receiving a six-figure grant.

    The $862,000 city grant is raising questions about favoritism due to the school’s close connections to the former mayor and other city hires, with some officials questioning whether taxpayer dollars should be awarded to a private religious school at all.

    The San Jose City Council voted 7-3 to approve a five-year grant to fund a work-study student program for Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. The city subsidizes education costs and students receive school credit for their internship. Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Peter Ortiz and Domingo Candelas voted against the measure. Mayor Matt Mahan recused himself from the discussion and vote.

    Mahan’s wife, Silvia Scandar Mahan, is the president of Cristo Rey—a nonprofit school designed to support underserved students across San Jose. Former Mayor Sam Liccardo helped found the school with his wife Jessica Garcia-Kohl in 2012. Rosalynn Hughey, deputy city manager, sits on the school’s board.

    “Only one (school applied)—I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Ortiz said at the meeting. “The way I see it, the city of San Jose is writing grants they know one person can apply for.”

    Ortiz argued bidding for the grant, which was released in April, wasn’t a competitive and transparent process because it requires schools to have a work-study program in place by August. That doesn’t give public high schools, especially underinvested high schools, the chance to set up their own program, Ortiz said.

    “We should be saying how do we change the language and this grant so that public schools, public charter schools, whatever school could qualify for these,” Ortiz said.

    Jimenez agreed and told San José Spotlight after the vote that the bidding process doesn’t “pass the smell test,” and seems to be tailored with one school in mind. The city was going to approve the contract without discussion through the consent agenda had Jimenez not pulled it for further review. However, Mahan and other city officials said San Jose did nothing wrong.

    “The city has worked with Cristo Rey to create work-study opportunities for low-income students for many years, long before I joined the council,” Mahan told San José Spotlight, noting he did his due diligence by recusing himself. “This is standard practice for any councilmember to avoid conflicts of interest.”

    Assistant City Manager Lee Wilcox said San Jose contacted 72 different high schools to alert them of the grant to ensure a competitive process. None applied. Only six schools looked at the application, according to city documents.

    “I think it is hard for a lot of public school districts to apply for something like this because they don’t have existing programs or work-study programs and in some ways are actually quite prohibited—from what their charter states—in doing something like this,” Wilcox said.

    This isn’t the first time the school has been at the center of controversy.

    Cristo Rey has been the beneficiary of two large taxpayer-funded grants since 2017, when Liccardo was mayor. The first grant allocated more than $100,000 for a pilot program for one year. A few months after that program ended, the private catholic school received a $838,264 grant in 2019 without the city having a competitive bidding process. That led to outcry from former East Side Union High School District Superintentent Chris Funk who said neither he nor his counterpart at San Jose Unified School District received information to bid for the funding.

    San José Spotlight’s reporting on the issue sparked an investigation by an independent national watchdog, The Freedom From Religion Foundation. The group argued that using public dollars to subsidize private tuition is unconstitutional—however the city fought back and promised to do better outreach in the next bid.

    With this grant, the city will subsidize $10,500 of the $25,000 cost of education per student for 15 students over the next five years. The student interns will work in various departments like finance, planning and code enforcement, the mayor’s office and the libraries. Jimenez said while Cristo Rey’s work is noble, there should be more effort into supporting public schools.

    “The city could’ve worked with public high schools to set up a program,” Jimenez said. “It’s almost a million dollars. What else could we have done with that money?”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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