To decide which attorneys should help advise Sweetwater Union High School District on its $644 million construction bond two years ago, employees and outside experts interviewed four firms. They ranked them on their experience, their credentials and their fees.

Two of the four seemed unlikely to get the job. Bowie, Arneson, Wiles & Giannone was ranked third. Garcia Calderon & Ruiz, was ranked last.

Yet two months later, both were hired over higher ranked firms. District staff said Bowie had helped sit on the committee that proposed the bond and would charge less than the competition. Garcia had “experience and knowledge of the district.” The interview committee decided to override its own rankings, Chief Financial Officer Dianne Russo later explained.

It had happened before. As Sweetwater hired help to spend the $644 million that Proposition O authorized for school construction, the district repeatedly ignored its own rankings of consultants.

Superintendent Jesus Gandara pushed for an architect that built schools he liked, even though it ranked lower than others. Sweetwater chose a company to manage the construction bond that wasn’t initially ranked first. Another company got points in its ranking for being local, but still rated lower than nine other firms. School officials moved it to the top anyway because it was a local company. Their recommendations then went to the school board for approval.

To gauge how closely rankings were being followed, voiceofsandiego.org reviewed the scores for five major functions of the facilities bond. Lower-ranked companies won work four of the five times.

The rankings are compiled by employees and outside experts in facilities, finance or the law. Firms are ranked on clear, agreed criteria. But getting the highest ranking doesn’t guarantee that a company will get hired. School officials say rankings aren’t final decisions, only the beginning of a process in which numerous other factors can intervene. Interviews and records show that Sweetwater often picked companies based on intangible factors that were not included in the rankings.

Choosing a company based on factors that aren’t quantified in a ranking “is the least transparent (method) and it is the most subjective,” said Tad Parzen, formerly general counsel for San Diego Unified. “But the best decisions aren’t always made on quantitative information.”

Those factors are often invisible to the public, unlike the listed criteria in rankings. That makes it difficult to gauge why a company was chosen and whether the process was fair. And when companies with lower scores are picked because of other factors, it appears to render the rankings irrelevant.

The rankings became controversial when Sweetwater chose a program manager for the bond. The program manager schedules construction projects, tracks costs and documents progress. Nick Marinovich, a community member who sat on the oversight committee for an earlier school construction bond, complained about the process for picking the new program manager, Gilbane/Seville Group Inc., which had ranked lower than another company.

“The superintendent steered it the way he wanted it to go. It was bogus,” said Marinovich, who has worked for more than a dozen years as a project manager with the county of San Diego and briefly for the losing company. Marinovich said in his experience elsewhere, it’s “very rare” that the highest-ranked company wouldn’t be chosen.

School districts and other government agencies have wide latitude to decide who to choose when hiring professionals such as architects or attorneys. They do not have to choose the lowest bidder, nor do they have to follow any particular process to pick the winner. They don’t have to rank candidates, as Sweetwater has repeatedly done. The law says only that for architects and engineering services, government agencies must use a “fair, competitive selection process” untainted by conflicts of interest.

No such conflicts are apparent in Sweetwater. Some seemingly unlikely winners did donate to help the campaign convince voters to pass the construction bond in 2006 or elect school board members. But other winning companies gave less than their competitors or not at all. Neither Gandara nor the school board members report having any financial interest in the firms.

Unlike Marinovich and other community members who oversaw the last round of construction projects, members of the new oversight committee for Proposition O said they don’t get involved in decisions about which companies to pick, nor would they second guess them. Rudy Gonzalez, who leads the oversight committee for the bond, said he ultimately didn’t care how the companies were chosen as long as the bond was run well.

Not every winner was an unlikely one. Sweetwater opted for the same financial advisor that its panel of interviewers ranked as the best. But firms with lower rankings were repeatedly picked:

  • Sweetwater chose the two law firms, Bowie and Garcia, that were ranked lowest by interviewers. One interviewer wrote that he wouldn’t recommend Garcia at all because the firm already worked for the district in a different legal capacity and he wanted to see “checks and balances.”

    Russo, the district’s chief financial officer, said the rankings were only the prelude to a discussion where the interviewers decided which firms they wanted to recommend. They chose not to recommend the highest-ranking firm because it had been used before, Russo said, and the school district wanted to give another firm a chance. So it chose Bowie instead.

    Russo said their recommendations then went to Gandara to choose the top candidates to send to the school board for approval. When asked why the staffers ranked candidates if the rankings weren’t used to thin the herd, Russo said: “I don’t know. I guess we didn’t have to.” She said they were nonetheless useful because they helped staff decide if any companies were ineligible.

  • To pick an architect, Sweetwater first screened dozens of applications and eliminated more than half. A panel then interviewed nine architects. Two firms that it ranked at the bottom of the list were later recommended to the school board over other, higher ranked firms, along with some of the top ranked firms.

    School district spokeswoman Lillian Leopold said one architect was recommended because it was local. Another winner, Ruhnau Ruhnau Clarke, had built two local schools that Gandara considered better looking than most in Sweetwater. The company was ultimately recommended to the school board despite having been ranked second-to-last. It was founded in Riverside and has a Carlsbad office.

    “If I wouldn’t have participated in that process, Ruhnau Ruhnau and Clarke — who is local — would have been cut out,” Gandara said. “What a shame if that would have happened.”

  • School districts with construction bonds typically hire a program manager, a company that supervises the multi-million-dollar effort. An initial interview panel comprising district staff and outsiders ranked Harris Gafcon first among the companies competing to manage the bond. It was the program manager for the district’s last facilities bond.

    But when the choice went to a second interview panel, another company emerged as the winner. Gandara said all but one interviewer chose Gilbane/Seville Group Inc. Meeting minutes indicate that then-facilities director Ramon Leyba said Gilbane/Seville “had a better sense of what diversity meant” than did Harris, and would do a better job of increasing minority hires among contractors.

    Gandara said Sweetwater had good reasons for weighing other factors besides Harris Gafcon’s ranking. He was displeased with renovations done under the last bond at Sweetwater High School. Stucco around new windows didn’t match the surrounding building. Rain gutters on the buildings were twisted.

    “Here’s the bottom line. You can talk about process — should you have filled out a form, could there be more transparency — but the average person out there wants to know, ‘Are you giving me a better product at the same cost as before?’” Gandara said.

    Not everyone was swayed. Marinovich wrote a letter to the school board questioning the process. Dan Malcolm, who led the oversight committee during the previous bond, said Harris had done a good job and it seemed unusual that the highest ranked firm would not win.

  • Sweetwater also needed a company to sell bonds to investors, known as a bond underwriter. Among the bond underwriters who competed to work in Sweetwater, a lower-ranked company, Alta Vista Financial, got moved to the top of the pack because it was a small local firm, Russo said. It was pushed ahead of nine firms with equal or better rankings, even though it had already gotten added points in the ranking for being a local firm.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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