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Commentary: Clarifying CAG’s position on school referendum

By Wes Mader Guest Commentary May 12, 2017

Who and what is Citizens for Accountable Government (CAG)? We are not a group that opposes public education as alleged by School Board Chair Richard Wolf in a recent letter to the newspaper, or that spreads “misinformation” as implied. We are citizen taxpayers dedicated to the fiscally-responsible use of tax dollars for the benefit of all residents. CAG has a 12-person steering committee that translates this priority into positions we publicly support.

Let’s be clear on where CAG stands regarding a school referendum. The CAG Steering Committee is in complete agreement that the school district has a space problem that must be solved by successful referendum. This group will support a referendum proposal that is based upon verifiable needs of the district, and that exhibits responsible fiscal restraint. CAG will not support a proposal if it appears driven by profit motives of a private consulting company, without regard to the long-term fiscal consequences for taxpayers.

Last year’s referendum didn’t fail because of “misinformation.” It failed because voters had the information necessary to recognize a lack of fiscal restraint in the proposal, and they understood their school taxes would increase substantially while a consulting company would walk off with millions. Many details from the failed referendum illustrate the above points, but let’s focus on just one.

The $129 million referendum price tag for facility projects outlined in Nexus prepared documents included a new 670-student elementary school with a $36 million price tag. In comparison, CAG was able to verify that the cost of Redtail Ridge (which currently has a capacity of 598 students) built eight years earlier was $20 million including land. With inflation flat, CAG asked why there was an 80-percent increase in cost for a new school to serve the same number of students as Redtail Ridge. The answer received was not very convincing

In a meeting initiated by CAG with district Business Director Julie Cink on April 12 of last year (attended by the district’s assistant superintendent and two board members), we asked the same question: Why the 80-percent increase for a school with the same number of students? In her response, Ms. Cink attributed most of the increase to what she claimed was an average 5-percent per year increase in construction costs since Redtail Ridge was built. She said the information came from Nexus. A 5-percent increase per year compounded over eight years years results in a cumulative cost increase of 48 percent. However Mortenson Construction (one of Minnesota’s premier construction companies) reports the construction cost cumulative inflation over the same eight years was 15 percent, not 48 percent. Who should you believe, Mortenson Construction or the consultant who expects to collect a percentage of budgeted cost?

Let’s do grade-school math. Applying the 15-percent Mortenson inflation factor to the $20 million Redtail Ridge project yields an estimated $23 million cost in 2017. Applying the Nexus provided inflation factor results in a $30 million cost. Then Nexus (or somebody) apparently added another $6 million for extras, pushing the total to $36 million.

While it would have been reasonable to apply actual historical inflation to the Redtail Ridge project to get a preliminary budget for a new school, instead it appears that a hip shot from the consultant company that would potentially reap millions in fees from the elementary school project alone, was used. In CAG’s opinion, budgeting to spend $16 million more than was spent on Redtail Ridge to build a similar school seemed inflated and outrageous.

If the same kind of fiscal thinking was applied to budget the other $94 million of referendum facility projects, it’s reasonable to think that the total proposed $129 million referendum facility package proposed last time around should have been well below $100 million. While that’s still a lot of taxpayer dollars, it’s not unreasonable to think that the referendum might have passed if the Nexus-provided project list and cost data had reflected some fiscal restraint.

The CAG Steering Committee is comprised of 12 serious individuals of differing experience including engineering, contracts administration, building construction, and business and fiscal management backgrounds. They are parents and grandparents of kids in our schools. And there are many CAG supporters in the community with similar backgrounds. These are individuals who believe we need a successful referendum to address future needs of our schools. It’s time for the administration and board majority to accept that their input as residents and taxpayers ought to be at least as valuable as the input from the consultant who will reap millions.

Wes Mader is the chairman of the steering committee for the Citizens for Accountable Government.

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