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Commentary: Process, transparency at heart of Nexus debate

Most of my career was spent in the public sector with government agencies and a private management and consulting firm. My work involved contracts, the drafting of requests for proposals, and contract administration for projects worth millions of dollars — all of them subject to state and federal regulations. That’s why I’m troubled by the actions of our school board and school administration in awarding multimillion-dollar contracts to a consulting firm without a formal, written, and fully documented competitive procurement process.

I am a passionate supporter of education and the public school system, but I’m concerned the board’s and the administration’s failed accountability gives rise to questions and issues so toxic they will derail the upcoming referendum. A recent Citizens for Accountable Government (CAG) public presentation only reinforces this judgment. Everything that’s in this column came from that presentation and is fully documented by CAG.

Some may conclude this is about Nexus Solutions. It’s not. Nexus is a distraction. The issue is how the administration and the board mishandled the consultant selection process and the development and administration of the Nexus contracts. That’s the reason for this column.

The school administration asserts Nexus won the competition to become the district’s exclusive supplier of facility related professional services, after a search for qualified companies. However, the only information provided by the district to substantiate this claim is a single proposal from a different company that was received in a different timeframe from when the Nexus proposal was received. While the administration claims the Nexus proposal was in response to the district’s Request for Proposal (RFP) process, they have also admitted under questioning that there was no formal, written RFP.

District records indicate that on May 17, 2012 Julie Cink, the business director for the Prior Lake-Savage School District, met with Michael David and Brent Jones who would subsequently register Nexus Solutions as a Minnesota company. The records did not indicate, by name, other attendees. One week later on May 24 Mr. David submitted a one and a half page proposal to Ms. Cink. It proposed that Nexus Solutions would become the exclusive supplier of “all professional services” for the district’s facilities improvement program. On June 20 Nexus Solutions was registered as a company with the Minnesota Secretary of State. Then on July 16 the District 719 School Board, less than a month after Nexus was registered as a Minnesota company, approved the hiring of Nexus with no evidence of any discussion in the meeting minutes.

The district distributed a document allegedly authored by former Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver recommending the hiring of Nexus as “experienced and with a good reputation” and the “one company that clearly stood out.” These are bizarre comments regarding a company that has no operating history. Moreover, the document has no date, no author’s name, no title and no signature even though allegedly written by Gruver who holds a doctorate in education. When asked when this document was presented to the board, the district was unable to show that it was ever presented, and records show that Ms. Gruver was not in attendance when the board voted to hire Nexus, but Ms. Cink was.

Financial dealings with Nexus have been nothing short of a mystery. While the initial one and a half page proposal from Nexus had a not-to-exceed cost of $95,000, it soon morphed into a multi-million dollar deal for Nexus. For example on Dec. 10, 2012 Ms. Cink authorized Nexus to commence work on a $3 million performance contract and on service contracts for a budgeted $22.2 million project (Compensation to Nexus unspecified.) The letter also stipulated that contract details for this work would be finalized no later than January 31, 2013, but contract details for the $22.2 million (that eventually grew into $35 million) were not finalized until about 18 months later in August 2014, after much of the $35 million had already been paid out. These were all Nexus recommended projects.

These are just some of the facts made public at the presentation by CAG, and, while the district seems to consider this all above board, business leaders in the private sector who have had a chance to review these, and other facts, shake their heads in disbelief.

The board and the administration may choose to characterize all of this as misinformation, and will tell us once more that Nexus is saving us gobs of money. But that won’t cut it. The buck stops with the elected board. Until they are willing to acknowledge the seriousness of the mistakes being made, and take action to fix the problems, the credibility of the board and the upcoming referendum will remain in doubt. The solution and the fate of the school referendum are in their hands.

This is about kids and their future, and teachers, and our school system, but, as important, it’s about public accountability and making certain that public resources are used accountably and wisely and that they go to kids and teachers and not to the profit of private consultants. My hope is the district will suspend its connection with Nexus, prepare a formal written request for proposal, go public with it, and include experienced members of the legal and business community in the drafting of the proposal and the evaluation process to ensure the contract is awarded to a responsible, experienced provider— even if that provider turns out to be Nexus.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American:

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.)