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Commentary: A perspective on the Prior Lake-Savage referendum

Our community was divided by the Nov. 7 school referendum, not by the issue of whether more classrooms are needed, because they are, but by a breakdown in civil discussion. The referendum passed by a vote of 7,232 to 4,403. The 4,403 “no” votes weren’t against kids, or teachers, or education. Their’s was a vote of no confidence in the school board majority and the administration and a vote for accountability and good business practice, both absent in the process that led up to the referendum.

The no votes questioned the district’s less than arms-length relationship with its consultant, Nexus, and some costly, albeit questionable, business transactions by district officials. It was all about competency and about trust. The district could have severed its contract and its business relationship with Nexus and called for a fresh round of consultant proposals, or hired a qualified architect-engineer to manage the construction projects. It chose not to. It should have been forthcoming and disclosed and identified the individual who signed off on a $600,000 payment to Nexus. It initially chose not to.

As reported in this newspaper, district officials, including Superintendent Teri Staloch and other board members met privately with Nexus representatives and members of the Vote Yes committee. Presumably the reason for the meeting was to discuss strategy for the referendum, raising another questionable conflict of interest with Nexus.

District leadership settled on a strategy of discrediting and attacking individuals, and groups, even other school board members, specifically, Melissa Enger. When CAG challenged the district, it became a target, and school board chair Richard Wolf sent a letter to this newspaper claiming that CAG had hired an anti-education consultant. The allegation was untrue and was subsequently retracted, but neither Wolf nor the district apologized for the allegation, nor did the district and the board ever apologize to board member Melissa Enger for the unfounded charges that were brought against her for opposing the board majority. A common theme was that groups and individuals were circulating “misinformation,” and that challenges to the district’s message were “distractions, “and that residents should only rely on district officials and not trust, or listen to, others in the community with opposing views.

The referendum passed. Here are some of the consequences:

One is the cost to taxpayers. The use of capital appreciation bonds will initially keep the new bond payments low, but they will increase drastically in later years. The board determined it would use capital appreciation bonds as a tactic to help sell the referendum to voters, even though it added $9.4 million in interest cost that will be felt acutely in the outlying years, especially now that Congress is about to remove the deduction for state and local government taxes, compounding the burden on retirees and those on fixed incomes.

According to the Minnesota State Demographer, there will be more people over 65 in Minnesota by the end of the decade than kids enrolled in the K-12 population. The number of Minnesotans turning 65 in this decade (about 285,000) will be greater than the past four decades combined, and the total number of older adults (65+) is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. By then, more than 1 in 5 Minnesotans will be an older adult, including all the Baby Boomers. That’s going to have a deep, long lasting effect on government finances and school districts, including Prior Lake’s.

Then there’s the loss of trust in the board and district leadership. The referendum was approved, but the ongoing business practices of the board and the district don’t pass muster, specifically the Nexus contract. Consider, who will be responsible for the contract and the payments? How will the contract be administered? Will there be periodic audits? Will the board receive reports on expenditures? Who is accountable?

Conducting business “on the fly” is never good policy, but that seems to be the district’s way of doing things. I’m told that the needed new grade school will likely not open until 2020, a year later than what I believe we were told just a month ago. The reason given is that the district didn’t have a written agreement with the landowner regarding when the land would be available. Assuming this information is true, construction costs will also increase, in my opinion. Credible and competent business managers, including Nexus and district staff, ought to have their business affairs in order before committing taxpayers to a multi-million dollar referendum.

Adding insult to injury is the board’s recent decision to continue open enrollment, which will fill kindergarten to the brim. How does one rationalize the last year and a half of news releases from the administration about overcrowding?

The school board is accountable to voters, not to the administration or the superintendent. They work for the board, not the other way around. Board members need business and management expertise, but they also need access to voters and staff and need to be free to dialogue and receive information and openly express their opinions and not be controlled, or intimidated, by the staff, the administration, or other board members. That’s how good policy making and government works. That isn’t how this board works. It’s about accountability — something that voters will have to assess and enforce in the 2018 elections.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-a-perspective-on-the-prior-lake-savage-referendum/article_ff466e84-37d3-5b52-9d7f-30951c081dd3.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)