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Commentary: Dissent, debate needed to develop successful referendum & Policy 203

Last spring, Prior Lake voters were asked to approve a $150 million school referendum, the largest in the district’s history, to accommodate ongoing enrollment increases. It would have doubled the district’s debt from $113 to $243 million at a total cost to taxpayers upwards of $175 million — depending on the bonding interest rate.

It was defeated by a substantial margin, and I was among those who voted “no.” Some might say it’s because I’m 72 and fit the stereotypical image of the skinflint old man who yells at kids to keep off the grass. I have my moments, but this was the first school referendum I’d opposed in my life. Clearly, more classrooms were, and are, needed, and I support that need, but I was deeply troubled at the nearly $20 million proposed for non-academic facilities — expanded gymnasiums, parking lots and the like, and the additional $25 million spread over 10 years for technology — with no metrics or specific plans for how that money would be spent. More troubling was that the district retained a previously unknown consultant, Nexus Solutions, with broad authority to develop the scope of work and the overall budget, absent any competitive bidding, request for proposal or formal, public evaluation process.

I worked in the public sector for 30-plus years, developing specifications, evaluating proposals and managing major capital projects involving federal funds, and I have never seen such a disregard of public accountability. The fact that Nexus has already been paid almost $9 million boggles the mind.

There will be a new referendum next November. A facilities task force has been selected consisting of parents, community members and school staff. Presumably, there will be a change in approach. However, with Nexus still in charge of all required technical services, why expect a fiscally responsible result this time around?

The board has not decided how costs and priorities will be determined and alternatives presented to voters. Will there be one question, or will there be alternatives for voters to consider? Or will the board simply dress up and repackage the same referendum and try selling it again? And what if it fails? Bottom line, has the board learned anything from its costly referendum failure? I’m not optimistic. I believe that change comes about through constructive disagreement and dissent, not consensus or kumbaya.

There is a “culture of control” on this board and it shows itself in a willingness to punish dissent and enforce conformity and “group think” on its members. Consider Policy 203, a new policy adopted at its Nov. 14 meeting. It’s six pages long, and although space doesn’t permit publication here, it can be viewed on the Citizens for Accountable Government website . As a governing document, it resembles something promulgated by the old USSR Politburo. Its tone is chilling and intimidating and its style and language reeks of control. The word “shall” is used 51 times, and there are statements such as:

“Board members shall receive the same information and data which are necessary for decision making. Information will come from the office of the superintendent. Board members shall channel requests for information and reports, as well as clarifications and questions, through the superintendent or board chair.”

And there’s a loyalty oath of sorts:

“Board member accountability to the entire school district supersedes any loyalty a board member may have to other advocacy or interest groups — or any loyalty based upon membership on other boards or staffs.”

As I recall, board members are policymakers and accountable to the voters who elected them, not the board chairperson, or the superintendent, or the staff. Residents should be vigilant and stay informed. There is cause for concern if what’s represented in Policy 203 is a predictor of how the board is going to proceed.

Please read more from the Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-dissent-debate-needed-to-develop-successful-referendum/article_7f1dc430-8170-5a3f-b6b1-b714490ec2c5.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and 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.)