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Commentary: Let’s have some accountability

By John Diers Sep 29, 2018

Go to the website of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District, and you’ll find this statement: “Our mission is to educate all learners to reach their full potential as contributing and productive members of our ever- changing global community.” Then go to the 2017-2018 budget on the same website and you’ll note that District 719 budgeted $130.8 million in 2017-2018 to carry out its mission.

Not posted on the website, but reported in the May 16, 2018 edition of the Prior Lake American is a news story that the district ended its fiscal year with a whopping deficit of $1.6 million and had to draw down its reserves to pay the bills. How did that happen? Among the reasons given in the Prior Lake American were “carryovers,” staffing costs and $100,000 for “solar gardens.”

More instructive, but disturbing, consider this explanation from the District Finance Director Julie Cink:

Said Cink, “There were quite a few things going on. There really isn’t any one thing I can point to say that’s why we’re over budget. School finance is really complicated. Some years we have higher expenditures for different things. We have some bigger expenditures that we know we’re going to spend. That’s kind of how it works with the budget. I think we are following through on what we told taxpayers we are doing.”

What an extraordinary statement and explanation from the finance director of an organization with a $130 million budget — nor were there questions, or challenges, or criticism from the board chair, or board members — at least none that were reported in the story. Nor was any action taken. $1.6 million is a lot of money — public money, taxpayer money. It’s about accountability. It’s what’s expected of a board of directors — but it went ignored and unchallenged. This board and its chair have a problem with accountability.

Here’s more:

Recall the board’s actions when it awarded a multi-million contract to a then start-up consulting company, Nexus, without benefit of an alternatives analysis or competitive bidding.

Recall, as reported in the American, during the referendum campaign of 2017, the superintendent, Nexus representatives, members of the “Vote Yes Committee,” the board chair, and “selected” members of the school board met secretly without the knowledge of all board members, presumably to plot strategy for the referendum. No explanation was given. The published account in the American suggests those in attendance first denied, and then evaded the issue. It seemed an effort to evade the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. But the incident was ignored and passed over by the administration, the chair and the board. No further formal inquiries were made.

Recall, last spring, the district administered a student survey with questions of a very personal nature that asked, among other things, if students had been having sex or had ever tried to kill themselves. The surveys were done without prior parental notification and approval, which is a violation of federal and state statute, yet, the chair and the board failed to call for an investigation to assess accountability.

Recall, as reported in the American, the efforts of the board majority to investigate, and possibly expel, a board member on charges that were found to be untrue. Recall, as well, its subsequent efforts to censure and, possibly, expel another member because that member wrote a column expressing her own views on a specific issue.

Recall, as noted in the American, a $600,000 payment to Nexus for standby generators authorized by an employee, not the full board. Consider, also, the payment was by cashier’s check, negating what should have been a formal, documented paper trail. Here, too, there was no follow-up by the board or even a discussion of procurement policy and approvals on high dollar purchases.

Last spring the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported extensively on a controversy and lawsuit filed against the Edina school system over a “cultural sensitivity” training program initiated by the Edina district. It was asserted the program had not been properly vetted and that parents were not informed. Our administration has retained the same consultant and undertaken the same, or a similar program, without formally vetting it publicly. Ignore for a moment the merits of the program, but given the issues and the money involved the board should have stepped up, reviewed the program in an open meeting, asked questions, and taken appropriate action. Again, that’s what boards do.

There are 11 candidates running for four open seats on our school board. Voters shouldn’t just hope that the four successful candidates have the necessary credentials and understand the role of board members and the responsibilities of a public policy board. Voters should reflect on the issues, ask difficult questions and ignore “feel good” rhetoric about “doing something for the kids.” District 719 comes with a $130 million budget, 1,200 employees and takes upward of 40 percent of local property tax dollars. It is among, if not, the largest public agency in Scott County. Let’s be sure the new board has competent members with open minds and critical attitudes and can provide meaningful oversight, not simply be a cheerleader.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American:

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.