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Commentary: Sensible answers needed to important questions

Prior Lake and Savage voters turned down a $150 million school referendum last May. The result dismayed the school board and the administration, but the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Increased enrollment meant a need for more classrooms, but details came out before the vote that millions would be spent on athletic and other facilities that had nothing to do with academic needs or classrooms. There were also concerns,about the process the board and administration followed in selecting a consultant, Nexus Solutions, to develop the referendum and manage construction projects. That consultant has already been paid $8.4 million.

The rejection should have been a signal to the board and administration that it had a credibility problem with voters. Worse, the board and the administration have not resolved the issues and questions swirling around Nexus. The administration asserts that state statute doesn’t mandate a competitive request for proposal (RFP) process for technical services. But public transparency, good business practice and the public interest, given the millions involved, would seem to make it the right thing to do.

At best, the process followed by the district was seriously flawed. It claims that the district’s attorney reviewed the Nexus contracts, yet no written evidence has been offered to show the board was briefed by its attorney before approving the contracts.

To date Nexus has received $5.3 million for consulting services for management of school district projects costing $34.8 million. Most of these involve maintenance and remodeling with only a minimum increase in classroom space. Included is money for work in and around athletic fields for turf replacement (presumably artificial turf), scoreboard relocation and track resurfacing. One can wonder how critical these projects were to academic learning, or why a consultant who adds fees on top of the project cost is needed for this type of work. The district also paid Nexus over $3 million for consulting on an energy-saving project. Reducing energy costs should be a high priority for all of us, but utility companies are glad to provide energy audits and recommendations at no cost to the clients. And of course they’re paid nothing in fees when their recommendations are implemented.

All of this has attracted media attention. City Pages, a metro area news magazine, investigated and published two very critical articles.

When people do show up at board meetings to ask questions, they get a mighty chilly reception. At a recent school board meeting, a number of citizens came to express concerns. They weren’t disorderly. A few carried signs expressing frustration about the Nexus contract, and one read a statement during the public comment period, but was cut short by the chairperson. The administration’s response was to call the Prior Lake police. Chief Mark Elliott was quoted in the Prior Lake American: “There was really no reason for us to be there, but when people call, we respond.”

None of this bodes well for the board’s and the administration’s credibility and the success of the next referendum. The board and administration will need to take charge and change course — especially its relationship with Nexus. If the next referendum fails, and it could, enrollment numbers will keep growing and the district will have to take draconian measures to deal with its situation. None of them will be in the interest of District 719 teachers, or current and future students.
Prior Lake needs good schools, but it has to pass a sensible referendum to have them.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American: http://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-sensible-answers-needed-to-important-questions/article_7658e415-e754-55e7-afd3-6e5f7af48cf7.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.)