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Commentary: School board should answer questions about generators

Citizens for Accountable Government has filed a formal complaint to our school district, alleging violation of Minnesota data disclosure law. The complaint was filed in response to the district’s claim that they can hide the identity of an individual who authorized a payment of $602,205 to Nexus. The complaint, available on the CAG website, citizensforaccountablegovernment.org, resulted from what CAG found in response to a resident’s question about a half a million dollar cashier’s check to Nexus. Here are the documented findings.

July 16, 2012: Following a recommendation from Minnesota Valley Electric, the school board approved the installation of backup generators at Redtail Ridge and Jeffers Pond elementary schools at a “complete” cost of $497,225. The purpose was to qualify for rate reduction from MVEC. Nexus was not yet under contract.

Dec. 11, 2012: The district signed a $3 million “Performance Agreement” with Nexus, based upon a Nexus “guarantee” to lower energy cost. Inexplicably the generators approved by the board five months earlier were in the Nexus contract, meaning Nexus could claim credit for obtaining electrical rate reduction as part of their “guarantee.”

Jan. 8, 2013: Less than four weeks after signing the agreement, Nexus submitted a $602,205 invoice for the generators, $105,000 more than originally approved. One day later, Jan. 9, the invoice was signed “OK to pay.” The signer’s name was redacted on the copy CAG received.

Jan. 16, 2013: A cashier’s check for $547,308.75 was issued to Nexus, and a week later a school district check for the $54,896.25 balance was issued.

These suspect transactions raised questions which were directed to the district’s director of communications. Why a cashier’s check instead of a school district check? The answer received was that the district tried to use a Visa card (P-card), but when payment was rejected a cashier’s check was issued. Why was the signature of the individual who approved the $602,205 payment to Nexus, redacted from the invoice? The district responded that state law doesn’t require disclosure. What district employees were authorized to sign Visa charges for this amount? The response was a narrative, but no names.

Other questions that should be answered: Why pay Nexus $105,000 more than the earlier board-approved non-Nexus proposal? Why permit Nexus a consulting fee for energy savings that resulted from a board decision made before Nexus was under contract? Are we to believe that fiscally credible public entities really make half a million dollar payments with Visa cards? Why pay Nexus eight days after receipt of invoice, when normal business practice would be 30 to 45 days? Most important, does Minnesota law really permit a school district to hide the name of employees who approve half a million dollar payments?

CAG’s formal complaint was delivered to the school board and superintendent on Sept. 1. In spite of the serious issues raised, the complaint wasn’t acknowledged by the board in its following Sept. 11 regular meeting. Numerous other issues involving the Nexus relationship cry for rational explanation, but the board majority shows no willingness to engage in public discussion about specifics. In contrast, some board members and the superintendent had no problem participating in an apparently secret out of town meeting with Nexus, as reported by the Prior Lake American. This fact alone, and the kind of dealings reported above, eliminate any basis for faith in the fiscal management of the district.

Wes Mader is a former Prior Lake mayor.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American: