Construction firms vote with bucks for schools - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Construction firms vote with bucks for schools

October 31st, 2019 development
Construction firms vote with bucks for schools

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Construction companies pledged a substantial amount of support this season for campaigns advocating to pass bonds and overrides in Chandler Unified and other East Valley school districts.

Because schools are not legally allowed to campaign for passage of ballot initiatives, political action committees, known as PAC’s, are separately established to buy advertising or creating flyers.

Teachers and administrators are often the biggest donors to these committees, but the construction sector is showing significant financial support this year for many campaigns across the East Valley.

Public records show ‘Yes for Chandler Students’, a pro-bond PAC, collected more than $110,000 in donations from construction, design, utility and contracting companies.

Chandler Unified District is asking voters to approve a $290-million bond for various construction, renovation, and capital projects in this years election.

Results of the all-mail voting will be disclosed Tuesday night, after the polling center closes. Elections officials have said it’s too late to mail ballots in and ballots must be dropped off at a voting center before 7 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 5. Voters who received ballots can find the nearest polling center at

Steep state-funding cuts is part of the district’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 schools soon due to the influx of students it’s seen in recent years.

Some companies that could potentially bid to work on these schools and other projects have donated to the pro-bond committee.

McCarthy Building Company, Core Construction, and Chasse Building all donated thousands of dollars to the campaign. These companies 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 regularly contributes 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 received 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.

Although Mesa Public Schools is not building any new schools, it is considering a significant remodeling of a number of buildings.

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 is more aggressive in recent years due to a shrinking media presence around Mesa.

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 bids it receives and ranks 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, like resulting in personally benefiting from a deal, this arrangement is legal and this type of arrangement seemingly became the norm in public education funding.

A review of public records from across the state shows many companies bankrolling bond and override PAC’s are also part of a small group getting most of the contracts awarded by school districts.

The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting found between 2013 and 2016, nine architects, construction firms, and subcontractors won more than half of all K-12 project contracts in the state.

In response to a recent corruption scandal at Scottsdale Unified School District, Arizona lawmakers recently added 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, funded a long list of construction and remodeling projects. One of those items included 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 to design 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.

CUSD Associate Superintendent Frank Fletcher said his department has checks and balances to spot irregularities.

If members of the committee award points that are not consistent with the rest of the group, Flletcher said he may question the member’s motivations or judgment.

He said the decision to give Had the design contract was overwhelmingly consistent.