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Scottsdale School Construction Project Central In AG Investigation
This story is part of a larger collaboration between KJZZ and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting (AZCIR). More on this investigation will be coming soon.
Change is coming to Scottsdale’s public schools.
Voters in the district approved a $229 million overhaul in 2016. But as the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) has rolled out their plans, some of the same members of the community who supported the project began raising objections. After months of contention between the community and the district administrators, the district has hired outside attorneys to look into whether they followed proper procurement practices, and state investigators are looking into the matter as well.
Scottsdale resident Dan Drake began asking questions about the district’s proposal when he heard Hopi Elementary School was set for a total demolition. The 57-year-old building means a lot to Drake and his family. His wife went there and so did his kids.
He wanted to see the justification, or a cost analysis that explained why the historic building needed to be torn down, and not just refurbished.
“I wanted to see a feasibility study,” Drake said. “I started asking for it in September. And got the runaround. Finally, I was told there are no such records, there is no feasibility study.”
Drake found that concerning — and he wasn’t alone.
Mike Peabody, a Scottsdale resident, SUSD parent and president of the Scottsdale Parent Council, said conversations he had with other members of the community led them to believe there might be some irregularities in the bond.
“I put in my first request,” Peabody said, “to see this bond funding from the day it started to the end of that fiscal year.”
Peabody, Drake and a handful of other concerned Scottsdale residents came together earlier this year, after they realized they were concerned about the same issues. They began trading notes and used a Facebook group to share what they had found with the broader community.
Not only did they identify concerns with the architect hired for the project, but they found documents showing that employees recently hired by the district, and who had ties to the new Scottsdale Unified School District superintendent Denise Birdwell through her former position at Higley Unified School District, had conflicts of interest.
From there, things snowballed. Some of these concerned community members also began sharing what they found with the Arizona Attorney General’s office, which confirmed their office is investigating possible civil and criminal violations.
The story begins in early 2016, before the bond was even officially proposed by the school board.
To help determine the dollar amount of a bond, school districts need to identify the scope of the project they want to fund. To do that most enlist an architect, who will create a master plan. In this case, SUSD hired Hunt & Caraway. And that’s where some irregularities began to catch the attention of the community.
Hunt & Caraway was hired using a private cooperative purchasing network called 1 Government Procurement Alliance (1GPA). The cooperative purchasing method is intended to streamline procurement. But records obtained by KJZZ and AZCIR suggest Hunt & Caraway began working on the project before the procurement process even started.
Records show that in January 2016, 1GPA began advertising the request for qualifications, which tells interested vendors there’s possible work. Architecture firms were then given a qualifications submission deadline of Feb. 11, 2016.
But the week before the deadline for architects to submit their qualifications, multiple subcontractors sent letters to Hunt & Caraway President Brian Robichaux, including landscape architecture firm THK Associates, dated Feb. 2, 2016.
“Dear Mr. Robichaux, It was good to hear from you yesterday regarding the Scottsdale Unified School District,” THK principal Peter Elzi wrote. “As we understand it, you and your associates are in the process of completing a master plan for the district, which involves the assessment of examining all of the elementary schools in the district.”
Elzi’s letter also included a detailed work scope. Another company, Facility Management Group, sent a similar letter to Robichaux a few days later, but still before the deadline for Hunt & Caraway to even submit qualifications and be considered for the work.
Around the same time, a purchase order history shows the district issued a $60,000 payment to Hunt & Caraway Architects on Feb. 8 for “facilities planning and review,” for the discussion of a future bond — three days before the architect submission deadline.
In the end, 28 firms submitted qualifications to be considered for the project, but Hunt & Caraway was officially selected, and the governing board approved a $180,000 contract with the firm in April.
In June, the governing board approved the 2016 bond proposal, sending it to the November ballot, and district voters passed it.
Normally, schools are supposed to go through the procurement process again to hire an architecture firm for the actual building design. Instead superintendent Birdwell announced that the initial review done by 1GPA was sufficient to have Hunt & Caraway stay on and design the new Hopi Elementary School.
The handling of the architect selection caused parents and community members to dig deeper.
They found court documents showing Hunt & Caraway Architects president Brian Robichaux had been convicted of felony theft in 1998. According to court documents, Robichaux misspent $125,653 from the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Mike Norton, another of the concerned residents who came together around these issues, said he was shocked when he looked looked into Robichaux’s background.
“They had been registered with 1GPA. And 1GPA represents to the public that they perform due diligence functions ... It took me about 15 seconds to find the criminal case and the conviction. This wasn't a difficult task to complete. This is actually a difficult task to ignore," said Norton.
Both Hunt & Caraway and Brian Robichaux did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
After Norton and others voiced their concerns, Birdwell announced in October that Robichaux had been replaced by Tamara Caraway as company president. But Hunt & Caraway’s corporate records, kept by the Arizona Corporation Commission, still list Robichaux as Hunt & Caraway’s president.
SUSD officials also refused to discuss the issue, citing an independent investigation into their own procurement practices, which required hiring outside attorneys to perform a review of the process.
Records notwithstanding, other members of the community got unsettling answers to questions they had about the process.
Jason Boyer, an architect and developer with Studio Ma based in Phoenix, lives in the Hopi Elementary district and said he was interested in the work. Boyer made some phone calls to find out more.
“It took me two phone calls to get to a couple people, where they're like, look don't waste your time,” Boyer said. “They basically said this is set up for a group of firms — a group of people that are all connected and tied to the superintendent. And, you know, you'd just be wasting your time.”
An SUSD spokesperson said in an email that they would not comment and that they expect their own investigation into the process to be finished by the end of the year. SUSD hired Gust Rosenfeld, the same law firm that’s providing counsel on the bond sale, to perform the investigation.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Attorney General’s office said their investigation is ongoing.
“The complaints cover a wide range of allegations, including both potential criminal and civil violations,” the spokesperson said. “Our office cannot comment further concerning ongoing investigations.”
Memo From Michael Norton
Scottsdale community member Mike Norton sent Superintendent Denise Birdwell a detailed memo following a Nov. 8 meeting about the school construction project.