Construction companies have pledged a substantial amount of support this season for campaigns that are advocating to pass bonds and overrides in East Valley school districts.
Because schools are not legally allowed to campaign for passage of ballot initiatives, political action committees have to be separately established to buy advertising or put up flyers.
Teachers and administrators are often the biggest donors to these committees, but the construction sector has shown significant financial support this year for campaigns across the East Valley.
Public records show Yes for Chandler Students, a pro-bond committee, has collected more than $110,000 in donations from construction, design, utility and contracting companies.
Chandler Unified District is asking voters this year to approve a $290-million bond for various construction, renovation, and capital projects.
Results of the all-mail voting will be disclosed Tuesday night after polling center have closed.
Elections officials have said it’s too late to mail a ballot in and that ballots must be dropped off at a voting center before 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5. People who have received a ballot can find the nearest polling center at recorder.maricopa.gov/pollingplace.
Steep cuts in state funding is part of the Chandler Unified’s justification for seeking the large bond, arguing it needs more resources to accommodate Chandler’s growing population.
The district is planning to build two new high school in Chandler and a new elementary school in Gilbert, where its boundaries overlap part of the town’s western edge.
Chandler Unified officials say they are contending with an influx of students. The Arizona School Facilities Board has approved some funding to build one of the schools.
Some companies that could potentially bid to work on these schools and other projects have been donating to the pro-bond committee.
McCarthy Building Company, Core Construction, and Chasse Building have all donated thousands of dollars to the campaign. These companies have all procured multi-million-dollar projects from CUSD in recent years, district records show.
Justin Kelton, president of McCarthy’s southwest region, said the business community is helping to fill a gap left by the Arizona Legislature’s inability to restore education funding back to pre-recession levels.
“We value education and believe that it is necessary for the development of our future workforce and community leaders. Therefore we support schools, teachers and students being given access to needed resources that these elections provide,” Kelton said in a statement.
The construction sector has been regularly contributing to school campaigns all across the Valley for years.
But the level of support appears to be particularly high during this election for some campaigns and low for others.
According to campaign finance reports, Yes for Chandler Students collected about $28,000 in donations from construction companies in 2015, when voters approved another bond for Chandler Unified. In 2013, the committee reported collecting $16,300.
A school committee in Gilbert raised $29,000 this year from the construction sector, according to the most recent finance reports.
A Scottsdale PAC reported getting $30,000 and a Tempe committee got about $20,000.
The Mesa Alliance for Educational Excellence, a committee supporting Mesa Public Schools’ override, reported $84,393 in contributions so far this election year, based on the most recent finance reports.
About 67 percent of these contributions came from contractors and construction companies.
Mesa Public Schools’ bond issue passed last year – and that campaign was fueled heavily by contributions from the construction industry.
This year the district is seeking voter approval of a 15 percent budget override to pay for daily operating expenses, mainly payroll. All districts have been socked with higher payrolls because of the voter-approved increases in the minimum wage.
Mesa school officials say without the override, they face a deficit of $21 million within three years.
Michael Hutchinson, chairman of the Mesa committee, said his team of volunteers does approach the construction sector for support – in addition to a variety of other businesses.
“We ask them all,” he said.
His committee uses its donations to pay for political consultants who help organize social media campaigns and neighborhood canvassing.
Hutchinson said the committee’s campaigning has been a bit more aggressive in recent years due to a shrinking media presence around Mesa.
“We have to tell the story,” he added. “The media coverage is not what it used to be. That makes it even more imperative to tell the story.”
When a district awards contracts for construction projects, it typically follows a process intended to be fair and unbiased. The district has a committee review all the bids it receives and rank applicants through a points system.
For example, when Chandler Unified solicited bids for adding 10 new classrooms to Basha High School, a five-person committee reviewed four proposals.
The committee awarded the $3-million contract to Concord General Contracting because it got the greatest number of points.
Concord is listed as one of the donors to Yes for Chandler Students.
This type of interconnection between contractors, political committees, and school districts is well within the bounds of Arizona law.
As long as district officials avoid conflicts of interest that result in them personally benefiting in a deal, this type of arrangement seems to have become the norm in public education.
A review of public records from across the state shows many of the companies bankrolling bond and override committees are also part of a small group getting most of the contracts awarded by school districts.
The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting found that between 2013 and 2016, nine architects, construction firms, and subcontractors won more than half of all K-12 project contracts in the state.
Educators often argue they regularly repeat business with the same contractors because it’s important for designers and builders to know the standards and culture of a school district.
In response to a recent corruption scandal at Scottsdale Unified School District, Arizona lawmakers recently tried adding new restrictions to prevent companies from influencing a school’s procurement process.
These rules included prohibiting gifts from contractors to procurement officials and awarding contracts to the lowest qualified bidder.
When asked if McCarthy Building chooses to support bonds and overrides that may fund construction projects his company could bid on, Kelton responded “not necessarily” and emphasized how overrides often help fund teacher salaries and educational programs.
“Since we believe that the basis of a strong community and an educated workforce is rooted in a good education,” Kelton added, “we support these elections and other educational initiatives.”
Chandler Unified’s $196-million bond from 2015 has funded a long list of construction and remodeling projects. One of those items includes design work for the district’s two forthcoming schools.
On Oct. 16, the district’s Governing Board used money from the 2015 bond to award a $3.5-million contract to HDA Architects for designing the new high school.
Campaign finance reports show HDA donated $10,000 on Aug. 19 to the Yes for Chandler Students committee. HDA also donated $3,000 during the 2015 election.
Governing Board President Barbara Mozdzen is the committee’s treasurer and voted to approve the HDA contract.
She said her volunteer work for the political committee does not influence her votes as a school board member.
“This has no influence on the district procurement process as it is completely independent from the PAC,” Mozdzen wrote in an email. “Donors to the PAC do not influence any of my decisions as a board member.”
Mozdzen is not the only school board president to be part of a pro-bond political campaign.
The Arizona School Board Association, an entity that guides school boards through navigating state laws, said the law allows board members to work on pro-bond campaigns, as long as it’s on their own time and without using school resources.
The committee that recommended granting HDA the contract only consisted of CUSD employees from various departments and one representative of the Arizona School Facilities Board.
CUSD Associate Superintendent Frank Fletcher said his department has a checks-and-balances system in place that can spot suspicious irregularities during the review process.
If members of the committee are awarding points to an applicant that’s not consistent with the rest of the group, Fletcher said he may question the member’s motivations or judgment.
The decision to give HDA the design contract was overwhelmingly consistent, Fletcher added.