At a lunchtime workshop early this year on the Houston school district's controversial food service contract with vendor Aramark, HISD business chief Cathy Mincberg faced tough questioning. Why, board member Karla Cisneros wanted to know, was the quality of the breakfasts and lunches for the district's children deteriorating while revenue drops under the new pact?
As participants chewed on sandwiches and chips, Mincberg fielded the queries with the assistance of a hawk-nosed, hirsute 48-year-old consultant named Wade John Jacobs hovering just to her right.
"There was resistance to change," explained Mincberg, blaming staffing problems for sluggish food sales revenue. "It has been an uphill battle to get people to do business in a different way."
"You're right," chimed in Jacobs. "There was not a management system in place or a culture to be able to react to those reductions in revenue and take the appropriate actions as far as operations is concerned, which is either reduction of staff or other initiatives to reduce costs."
"Very good point," agreed Mincberg. "That falls under resistance to change."
Except for the fact they were eating, you might have thought the conversation was taking place between robots.
"Change" in HISD bureaucratese translates these days as privatization, the outsourcing of duties from district employees with protected salaries and decent benefits to a New Age collection of private firms and consultants. Depending on the viewpoint, Wade Jacobs is either the local poster boy or the Rasputin of the movement.
Jacobs has never surfaced in stories by reporters covering the district. But in the last three years he's become HISD's Mr. Fix-it, master of its computer universe and major project guru to everyone from the superintendent on down. Since inking a district contract in 1999, Jacobs's California-based Infinet Technology Group has been paid $1.74 million. A contract extension is potentially worth another $1.3 million through next year.
Jacobs bills the district at a rate of $1,400 daily for his services. His deputy charges $1,250 a day, and his secretary gets $325 daily. What do they do for all that dough? As one district insider e-mailed in frustration, "Who is Wade Jacobs?"
HISD board president Jeff Shadwick says he isn't exactly sure what Jacobs does or how much he is paid. When told the scope of the contract, Shadwick replied, "That seems like a lot."
Asked to outline the duties that Jacobs performs for that stellar contract, interim superintendent Kaye Stripling, to whom Jacob reports directly, tersely replied through an intermediary, "We do not discuss personnel matters."
Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon says whenever her union has a problem involving district payroll or other computer-based matters, she calls Jacobs and -- presto! -- the problem disappears. Fallon says she considered making an issue of his hefty contract but found him too useful to criticize.
Jacobs came to the district as the project leader for Macro Educational Systems, which sold the district a computerized student accounting system. He separated from that company, launched Infinet and inked the contract with Paige.
"Wade did an excellent job of telling the superintendent what he wanted to hear," contends this source. "Many mistakes were made that cost the district dearly. [But] Wade is very glib. He managed to torpedo any other consultants that tried to get the job done right."
A former district employee says that Jacobs has made himself indispensable in the bureaucracy by monopolizing technology expertise and "keeping it in his little black box." When district officials recently posted the job of director of technology, Jacobs did not apply. At $100,000-plus, he'd have to take a severe cut in pay for the position.
The Insider filed an open records request for all documents relating to the district's selection of Infinet Technology Group. HISD officials responded with only the contract. There was no bidding process in Infinet's selection, and no competitors were considered, the district reported.
According to the contract, Jacobs's responsibilities include installation and management of the PeopleSoft computer program, maintenance of phone systems, overall leadership of district technology initiatives, and participation in contract negotiations and outsourcing initiatives. In short, he's a regular Wade-of-all-trades in the noneducational realm.
Jacobs's contract lists Infinet Technology Group as headquartered at 17 Sarazen Lane in the community of Coto de Caza in Orange County, California. Property records show the address as a single-family residence valued at nearly $600,000 and owned by Jacobs and Deborah Adolphs.
California secretary of state records listed both Jacobs and Adolphs as general partners when Infinet was incorporated in 1996. That same year the corporation status was canceled. When Jacobs and then-superintendent Rod Paige signed Infinet's first HISD contract, Infinet was listed as a sole proprietorship. Jacobs's social security number was put in place of a corporate ID.
Calling the phone number for 17 Sarazen Lane brings an anonymous automated message. A neighbor confirms it is a residence and that Jacobs and Adolphs live there and represent themselves as married but that Jacobs spends most of his time in Texas.
Adding a touch of salaciousness to Jacobs's HISD presence is his rumored close personal relationship to the 49-year-old Mincberg. He has worked with her on implementing the Aramark contract and installing the PeopleSoft program. Several HISD sources believe Mincberg played a key role in Jacobs's initial selection as a consultant.
The relationship is close enough, say sources, that Jacobs was a figure in Mincberg's recent divorce from David Mincberg, the millionaire builder and former county Democratic party chairman.
Cathy is a former HISD board president who, like past trustee and then-superintendent Paige, utilized a revolving door to move from an unpaid board position to her $150,000-a-year district job. David's business earns him a million or more a year.
Their divorce concluded in early February. According to David's pleadings, Cathy ended their 25-year union by abandoning the family and using liquid community assets to buy her own house in Bellaire in September 1999. That's the same month Jacobs signed his pact with HISD.
Her court documents say she moved out with the cooperation of her husband. In the settlement, the Mincbergs have joint custody of their daughter and two sons.
Asked whether Jacobs was a factor in the split, David Mincberg replied, "You'll have to ask her." Asked whether he had Jacobs investigated during the divorce, Mincberg issued a no-comment.
For a company with such a big contract, Jacobs and Infinet have left hardly a trace in media news and business databases. In 1993 Jacobs worked as a support services manager for the Mesa Unified School District in Tempe. When he moved on to California in 1995, he sold his residence in Tempe to a Linda Rae Jacobs, apparently a former wife.
Mesa Assistant Superintendent Chuck Essigs hired Jacobs to manage the implementation of new technologies. He recalls that Jacobs had a bachelor's degree and worked for an Internet mail-order company at the time. What impressed him most was Jacobs's role in creating a computerized storage warehouse for his private employer.
Once on board at Mesa, Jacobs worked with accounting software produced by Macro, the same company that later sent him to HISD. He also laid the groundwork for a project to provide each Mesa district classroom with an integrated voice, video and data system.
Essigs praises the work of Jacobs, citing his drive, focus and intelligence.
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"He read all the journals and was always up to date on the latest things happening in technology," remembers Essigs. "He learned a lot of that himself. I don't think it was from his formal education. It was just from his experience."
Essigs says that before Jacobs's main project had been completed, he was hired away by Macro, the California software company whose wares he had installed at Mesa. The departure created no rancor.
"We're a public school district," Essigs says, "and there was no way we could compete with the salary they were going to pay him."
Four years later Jacobs found one that could -- in a little ol' place called Houston, Texas.