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Commentary: Recent articles raise questions about school district

This column is on the opinion page, because it is, just that, opinion — my own, but the questions it raises come from two recent articles on the news pages of the Prior Lake American, on June 28, and July 15, reported by Hannah Jones.

If you haven’t read them, do so. Then re-read this column and ask if they don’t beg the same questions I have about the school district, its business competency, and its business relationship with Nexus Solutions — a relationship that’s been questioned by two school board members, Citizens for Accountable Government, residents in a number of letters to the editor and in several of my earlier columns.

Take note. It is the role of good journalism and the press to raise issues — not provide pat answers from official sources. Hannah Jones and the Prior Lake American are doing just that.

Let’s have a look:

As reported on June 28, three school board members: Stacey Ruelle, Lee Shimek and Richard Wolf, along with Superintendent Staloch and two representatives from Nex us, Michael David and Brent Jones, met with members of the “Vote Yes for Kids Group” organized by Jonathan Drewes of Savage. There was no public notice of the meeting or formal record, even though three board members were in attendance, along with Superintendent Teri Staloch. The meeting was held at the Burnhaven Library in Burnsville. It didn’t violate the open meetings law because it was short of a quorum.

It was noted in the article that “A Minnesota Attorney General opinion states school boards can spend an ‘appropriate’ amount of funds on informing the public about the referendum, but another opinion states they have to be impartial while they do this, and can’t promote an affirmative vote.”

Given this, what was the purpose of the meeting if not to promote a yes vote on the referendum, and if so, why were Nexus representatives in attendance when Nexus stands to make millions if the referendum passes? Isn’t that a blatant conflict of interest? Moreover, did Nexus bill any time to the district for attending the meeting? Drewes, when asked if Nexus representatives were there, at first replied, “no comment,” but eventually volunteered the information. Board members Ruelle, Wolf, and David (from Nexus) did not respond, despite repeated requests for comment.

Again, why no public notice, especially with three board members, the superintendent, and Nexus representatives in attendance? Why the evasiveness and, as important, why wasn’t the meeting held at the Savage or Prior Lake libraries, why Burnsville?

In an article appearing on July 15, reporting on the July 10 school board meeting, board members Melissa Enger and Mary Frantz raised questions about Nexus out of concern that possible voter disapproval of Nexus could cause a referendum to fail. Board members Shimek, Wolf, Hanson, Ruelle, and Sorensen refused to discuss the issue, saying they felt the “subject of Nexus had already been discussed at length and any further exploration of the subject would only serve as a ‘distraction’ and delay the process.”

But what if the referendum fails? Wouldn’t that be an even bigger “distraction?”

Finally, and this goes to the question of the district’s overall business competency. In a story in the same July 15 edition, it was reported the board, on a staff recommendation at the June 12 meeting, accepted a bid for masonry restoration that was $21,000 over budget, rejecting a bid from a qualified firm owned by two Prior Lake residents that was $40,000 cheaper. Why? Because the firm purportedly failed to include a document that was required to accompany the bid — a technical oversight that will cost taxpayers additional money.

Comes the question, did the district have language in its bid documents giving it the option of rejecting all bids, at its discretion, and redoing the process, and, if not, why not? That’s what district staff should have done. The bids and the recommendation for an award should have never come before the board at all.

Perhaps I’m being snarky, but this is the same administration staff and school board that hired Nexus Solutions absent any transparent, fully documented, competitive request for proposal process, and now, even though millions are involved, as well as the future of kids and teachers, and despite efforts by two board members urging it to reexamine the issues, it is still is willing to move forward even though it may cost it the referendum.

Voters, and parents and teachers should remember this, if the referendum fails — again.

Please read more from The Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-recent-articles-raise-questions-about-school-district/article_e325a0b7-eaf5-5875-8504-7789b8378a1c.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.)