Investigations confirmed, allegations swirl as Scottsdale Schools business practices questioned

It appears that a series of events occurring in early 2016 has resulted in many Scottsdale Unified School District parents and community members questioning the ethics of their district leaders.

The Scottsdale Unified School District blogosphere is oftentimes anything but quiet, and recently it’s been shouting from the rooftops looking for answers to a number of questionable decisions executed by district officials.

Questions raised by the community include the procurement process in which the school district hires outside vendors, and, primarily, what some concerned community members feel was a questionable hiring process for one architect. Local concerns raised has led the school district and the Arizona Attorney General’s office to look into matters.

The Arizona Attorney General’s office confirmed its involvement in an investigation looking into the business practices of the Scottsdale Unified School District, but cited its policy to not discuss ongoing investigations during a Nov. 29 phone interview with the Independent.

SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm also confirmed a separate district investigation during a Nov. 30 emailed response to questions.

“I can confirm a review is underway, but it is more external than internal. In the interest of transparency and to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent with the utmost integrity, SUSD Attorney Michelle Marshall has hired an outside attorney to examine current SUSD procurement processes,” Ms. Helm said.

Susan Segal of the Phoenix law firm Gust Rosenfeld is the outside counsel that has been hired.

The review will be looking at whether the district complied with procurement rules with respect to procuring a particular vendor, Ms. Helm said.

Hunt & Caraway Architects is the lead firm working with the district since — and before — a $229 million bond approval in November 2016. Orcutt-Winslow is a second architecture firm also hired to work with the district.

The accusations are raising questions as to what Dr. Birdwell and members of the SUSD Governing Board knew and when they knew it over the past 24 months.

Dr. Birdwell declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

A view of one of the many Scottsdale Unified School District school sites. (File photo)

A confirmed timeline

Questions began to sprout within the Hopi Elementary School community earlier this fall when the school was set to begin a complete tear-down and rebuild.

At a September meeting, a room-full of school parents and neighbors voiced their disapproval for the proposed school design and the process in which the rebuild was being handled.

Hunt & Caraway Architects Principal Brian Robichaux had been leading the charge on Hopi’s redesign. Paperwork shows the firm was first hired by the district in April 2016 to work on a “facilities master plan” prior to the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board approving the bond ballot initiative.

District documents, Arizona Corporation Commission files and procurement records show that neither Hunt & Caraway nor Orcutt-Winslow went through a public SUSD procurement process, but rather were approved through a Phoenix-based national cooperative, 1 Government Procurement Alliance in 2016.

1 Government Procurement Alliance — also known as 1GPA — is a nonprofit national governmental purchasing cooperative that allows public agencies to take advantage of existing contracts to purchase the goods and services they need from local and national vendors, according to a Request for Qualifications document dated Jan. 14, 2016.

Records posted to 1GPA.org illustrate an architectural services RFQ for the state of Arizona, and SUSD was designated as the lead agency for the procurement.

Documents between January-December 2016 depict the details of the district’s procurement process bringing Hunt & Caraway to SUSD.

January 2016:

On Jan. 4, 2016, a letter from 1GPA Executive Director Ken Carter requests the approval of the SUSD Governing Board to issue a RFQ for architectural services.

The intention was to award contracts to cover all of Arizona by dividing the state into seven regions, with Maricopa County being designated as Region 1.

The letter was signed by both Mr. Carter and former Scottsdale Schools Chief Financial Officer Daniel O’Brien. Mr. O’Brien left SUSD in early 2017.

Records show a legal advertisement ran two weeks in the Arizona Business Gazette — a Phoenix-based business newspaper owned by Gannett, which is the parent company of the Arizona Republic newspaper — advertising the RFQ, on Jan. 21, 2016, and Jan. 28, 2016. The RFQ was advertised to have a due date of Feb. 11, 2016.

On Jan. 22, 2016 a pre-bid conference was hosted, yielding 30 guests. A representative from Hunt & Caraway was not noted on the sign-in sheet.

Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell was hired as interim superintendent on Jan. 30, 2016, for a six-month contract, before signing a permanent three-year contract later in 2016.

February 2016:

A Feb. 2, 2016, letter from Colorado-based THK Associates, Inc. indicates Mr. Robichaux had begun working on a district master plan.

“Dear Mr. Robichaux: it was good to hear from you yesterday regarding the Scottsdale Unified School District,” the letter states. “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.”

The letter also details the district’s plan to propose a $240 million bond offering in November of that year, “of which $220 million is slated for new or renovated schools.”

The THK Associates, Inc. letter was accompanied with an outline of research methodology to prepare a market and enrollment analysis, the document states.

In addition, an SUSD purchase order shows on Feb. 8, a request for $60,000 to Hunt & Caraway Architects was issued, followed by other invoices throughout the spring, adding up to a total paid amount of more than $160,000.

On Feb. 9, 2016, the SUSD Governing Board ratified the approval of the 1GPA architectural services RFQ. The same day, a letter from Mr. Robichaux was sent to Dr. Birdwell accepting a request to present fee proposals for a master plan analysis.

“We recognize the importance of this analysis to help the district manage campus upgrades, renovations, and remodels as needed,” Mr. Robichaux states in the letter.

One day later — Feb. 10, 2016 — the Arizona Corporation Commission issued a certificate of reinstatement to Hunt & Caraway Architects, signed by Executive Director Jodi A. Jerich. The company had been dissolved on June 11, 2015, for failure to file an annual report.

On the heels of the ACC’s reinstatement letter, Hunt & Caraway submitted a sealed RFQ minutes before the 11 a.m. deadline on Feb. 11, 2016 to 1GPA. Twenty-nine total submittals were received.

Former Scottsdale Unified School District Executive Director of Facilities and Operations Terry Worcester was one of three committee members reviewing the proposals. The others were 1GPA Executive Director Mr. Carter, and H2 Group’s Bonnie Gonzalez.

H2 Group is a Scottsdale-based project and construction management consulting firm, records show.

A Feb. 16, 2016, contract signed by all three committee members outlines rules to not communicate or discuss bids or proposals with any of the applicants.

Hunt & Caraway’s RFQ was submitted by a woman named Jazmyn Jones.

The procurement evaluation process was based on a 1,000-point system. Hunt & Caraway’s total score by the three evaluators was an average of 888 points.

The five firms selected for Maricopa County through 1GPA’s procurement process were: DLR, O/W, Hunt & Caraway, ADM, and Emc2, documents show.

April 2016:

Throughout the spring, the Governing Board was a part of several discussions under the “facilities master plan” umbrella. Mr. Robichaux was present at an April 7, 2016, Governing Board meeting where he submitted a notebook with study results. The group began looking at what was coined the “red brick group” — Kiva Elementary, Navajo Elementary, Hopi Elementary and Hohokam Traditional schools.

On April 19, 2016, the Governing Board approved two consent agenda items awarding and purchasing architectural services.

“It is recommended that the Governing Board approve the purchase of Architectural/Professional Services through the 1Government Procurement Alliance (1GPA) contract to the vendor listened below, for an amount not to exceed $180,000 for the fiscal year 2015-2016,” the meeting agenda states, noting staff determined the use of this contract best represents the district’s values.

June 2016:

On June 2, 2016, Mr. Robichaux again presented at a Governing Board meeting, this time showing a campus plan analysis. The Governing Board approved its bond ballot initiative at a June 7, 2016, meeting.

November 2016:

On Nov. 8, 2016, a $229 million bond was approved by Scottsdale Unified School District voters. By this time, the district had earmarked money to several areas, but the largest chunk was to rebuild several elementary schools.

Dr. Birdwell’s three-year contract was approved on Nov. 23, 2016.

December 2016:

The Governing Board held a Dec. 8, 2016, study session where discussions about the sale of the bonds, bond project process, and presentations from Hunt & Caraway and Orcutt Winslow ensued.

Dr. Denise Birdwell

Minutes from the meeting show both firms discussed examples and cases of what a rebuild and remodel for schools would look like. Mr. Robichaux estimated his cases to take an average of 21 months.

During the meeting, Dr. Birdwell briefly revealed that the 1GPA procurement was enough for the district to extend the architects’ tenure.

“You also have the responsibility of hiring architectural firms and any construction firms that will complete that work for us, we do that through the legal procurement process,” Dr. Birdwell explained to the Governing Board on Dec. 8, 2016.

“Procurement was started a year ago through 1GPA that did architectural firms across our state and Maricopa County, there were five firms listed. We certainly have the ability to tap into that procurement … we had Scottsdale people evaluating architecture firms for us, so we feel pretty comfortable with that first step that gets us running.”

A contract for Hunt & Caraway was approved by the governing board on consent, on Dec. 13, 2016. The meeting agenda states the firm’s fees will range from 6.5 to 7.5 percent of the project cost.

Audience members at an SUSD meeting look on as Brian Robichaux and Tamara Caraway, pictured far left, present school rebuild plans in 2016. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Concerns emerge surrounding a vendor

Scottsdale resident Loyd Eskildson revealed in a Nov. 13 letter to the Independent, that court records show Mr. Robichaux was charged with felony theft in 1998, and a final judgment was signed on 2004.

In State of Arizona v. Brian A. Robichaux, Arizona Superior Court records show Mr. Robichaux obtained $125,653 from the Arizona Department of Transportation for the purpose of building a home for Flora Mae Baptisto Phillips, but used the money for other, unauthorized purposes.

Mr. Robichaux plead guilty to count one, theft, a class 4 felony.

Between Nov. 5, 1996 and March 15, 1997, Mr. Robichaux is accused of illegally taking funds from ADOT, when he was contracted to build a house for Ms. Phillips on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation for families displaced by Loop 101. A total of 70 houses were to be built.

Brian Robichaux

“Mr. Robichaux, through his company, Robichaux Company, submitted documentation to the Department of Transportation (that) falsely reflected that he had completed certain described construction phases on Ms. Phillips’ house,” the court records state.

Records state that of the $126,653 cost estimate, Mr. Robichaux returned $30,000 but was unable to finish the balance. The money was in the general fund of his company, which was struggling, court records state.

The Independent made telephone calls and sent emails to Mr. Robichaux requesting an interview. Mr. Robichaux never responded.

Mr. Eskildson also noted Mr. Robichaux’s work done in the Higley Unified School District. The Higley projects are Mr. Robichaux’s first example of relevant projects on a Hunt & Caraway RFQ offer and acceptance document dated March 1, 2016.

Additionally on the RFQ document, Mr. Robichaux does not list any professional training or registrations, as does his former colleague, Tamara Caraway, who identified herself as a registered architect for the state of Arizona.

Mr. Robichaux has resigned from Hunt & Caraway, according to a letter to Dr. Birdwell from Ms. Caraway dated Nov. 3. At an Oct. 16 community meeting, Dr. Birdwell announced that Ms. Caraway had replaced Mr. Robichaux due to illness, Independent records show.

“Hunt & Caraway architects, LTD, provides formal notice of the resignation and disengagement of Brian A. Robichaux, former president and director of the firm,” Ms. Caraway’s letter states. “As of Nov. 2, 2017, Mr. Robichaux will no longer be engaged in the business, planning or development of Hunt & Caraway Architects, LTD.”

A Dec. 1 search on the Arizona Corporation Commission website shows Mr. Robichaux is still listed as president.

The Scottsdale Unified School District’s review is expected to be complete in mid-December.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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