On Dec. 1, 2020, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton signed a contract between the District 65 School Board and Sagebird Consulting, LLC, located in Louisville, Ky.

The agreement provides that Sagebird Consulting LLC will perform certain services for District 65 for a total of $112,000 in connection with the District’s plan to revise its student assignment system. The goals of the overall project are to modernize the structure of the District’s student assignment system, establish new school boundaries, establish an equitable selection process for magnet schools and programs, and establish a school in the 5th Ward, said Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignments, at a District 65 School Board meeting on Feb. 8.

Sagebird Consulting LLC lists two people under the heading “Our Team” on its website: Cassie R. Blausey, J.D. and Stephen W. Lin, Ph.D.  

Ms. Blausey was hired as the Director of School Choice at Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, in about November 2017. During her tenure, Dr. Horton served as Chief of Schools at JCPS. They served on a Student Assignment Review Advisory Committee at JCPS that recommended revisions to the student assignment plan there. JCPS’s website reflects that Ms. Blausey is currently the Executive Administrator of School Choice at JCPS.

According to one report on the web, Sagebird Consulting LLC filed its organizational papers on Nov. 23, 2019.

The RoundTable asked Dr. Horton in an email in the morning of March 4 to describe his working relationship with Ms. Blausey at JCPS and if they are friends; why he hired Sagebird Consulting LLC; if he considered any other firms; if he sought bids from any other firms; and if he obtained approval of the School Board or the Board’s Finance Committee to enter into the contract. Dr. Horton did not respond prior to the posting of this article.

In a memo to the School Board dated Feb. 8, 2021, Ms.  Smith said, a team at District 65 is working to develop a Student Assignment Plan to present to the School Board in March 2022. She said the team from District 65 “includes Dr. Horton (Superintendent), Dr. Green (Deputy Superintendent), Kylie Klein (Director of Research, Accountability, & Data), Saranda Karpuzi (Registration), and Tania Margonza (Community Engagement Facilitator).”

Ms. Smith’s memo adds, “We contracted Sagebird Consulting, led by Cassie R. Blausey, J.D. to guide us in our work. In her role as the Executive Administrator of School Choice for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), Cassie leads several large-scale District initiatives, including the building of charter school authorizer systems, designing new magnet schools, and co-leading the redesign of the JCPS Student Assignment Plan. Her partner, Stephen W. Lin, Ph.D., specializes in research methods and statistics. He has conducted program evaluations, independent research, and tailored consulting for public and private institutions.”

The RoundTable asked Anya Tanyavutti, President of the District 65 School Board, and Joey Hailpern, a member of the School Board and Chair of its Finance Committee, when they became aware of the contact, if other firms were considered for the project, if bids were sought from other firms, and why Sagebird Consulting was selected.

Ms. Tanyavutti told the RoundTable, “Regarding your inquiry, we as a Board were notified of administration interest in working with Sagebird Consulting, a uniquely qualified consulting firm run by a Latina woman who successfully supported JCPS system redistrict in complex racially and economically disparate demographics similar to ours, in a superintendent update in November, as such I did not advise my colleagues. Our district policy (2.170) does not currently require bid or Board approval for such a contract execution.  

“We will be revisiting policy 2.170 at a future policy meeting.” 

Mr.  Hailpern told the RoundTable, “Sagebird was selected to support the multifaceted student assignment work for a few reasons. They have recent experience doing this kind of work in getting teams organized for the long process ahead and strategizing the order of events. They have recently done this work in Jefferson County Schools in Kentucky.

“I was not aware of the Sagebird Consulting Contract until it was shared through a superintendent update to the board. As such, I also did not advise other members of the board about the contract that I did not know about. 

“As a part of our Student Assignment Work and the upcoming master facilities planning work, additional expertise was expected to be hired along the way. It is common for schools to engage some specialty services like this to help move the project along, maintain an unbiased view of the community, and help us stay on target all while the school district business carries on.

“Around the same time I became aware of the Sagebird contract there were also suggestions for consultants to support the master facilities planning. I did speak to Dr. Horton about any work related to master facilities, architectural, engineering, or land surveying follow a formal, public bid process in line with policy 2.170 so that the Board can vote on the firm that is used in that work in open session with the public deliberation.

“In addition, we are planning to review this policy and other financial policies to include expenditures like this so that there is a public review process in place.

“Finally, I am not aware of any other firms considered nor was there a formal bid process performed as the scope of the work for this group is outside of the policy referenced above.”

Section 2.170 provides that the School Board may retain architects and engineers to render professional services on the basis of demonstrated competence and qualifications and in accordance with State law. The Illinois Local Government Professional Services Selection Act, 50 ILCS 510, provides the process to be followed before entering into a contract for architectural and engineering services, which includes specified notice requirements and consideration of qualified firms who express an interest in the providing the services.

Ms. Tanyavutti and Mr. Hailpern focused on Board Policy Section 2.170 relating to engineering and architectural services, but Board Policy 4.60 also contains provisions relating to contracts, each of which must be complied with.

Section 4.60 provides, “No purchase of contract shall be made or entered into as a result of favoritism….” 

It also states, “Adoption of the annual budget authorizes the Superintendent or designee to purchase budgeted supplies, equipment and services, provided that State law is followed. Purchases of items outside the budget parameters require prior Board approval, except in an emergency.”

Section 4.60 also says, “Supplies, materials or work in excess of $25,000 must comply with State bidding procedures, 105 ILCS 5/10-20.21, unless specifically exempted.” State law exempts “(i) contracts for the services of individuals possessing a high degree of professional skill where the ability or fitness of the individual plays an important part; …”

There is no indication that either the School Board or the Finance Committee discussed, voted on and approved the Sagebird contract in open session before it was entered into.

At the end of the Board’s Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 8, Mr. Hailpern said that a Board Policy provides that contracts over $25,000 must be brought to the Board for approval. He said he wanted the Finance Committee to discuss lowering that amount, “specifically so that purchases cannot be done without Board approval at a lower threshold.

“I think for me, that’s just one way that we can slow the rate of spending, and bring a little bit more oversight to the financial interests of the District long term.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...