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Commentary: Time to restore credibility

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2016 3:45 pm

By John Diers

Hundreds of new students are projected to arrive in Prior Lake classrooms over the next 10 years. Current enrollment is already running ahead of that pace, yet the district doesn’t have a plan to accommodate them. A May 27 referendum failed and the board is trying to decide what to do next.

Much needs to be done, but one thing has to come first. The board, the chairperson and the staff have to admit they’ve made mistakes. Admitting these mistakes and the mea culpa that hopefully follows may help restore the credibility the board so desperately needs if its next referendum proposal is to have any chance of success.

Psychologists describe “groupthink” as a phenomenon that occurs when people come together and the desire for conformity is so strong that it results in dysfunctional decision-making. Minimizing conflict and achieving consensus takes precedence over dissenting viewpoints or critical evaluation. Those who differ are punished or excluded. “Groupthink” describes the recent behavior and actions of the Prior Lake-Savage Area School Board.

Consider the example of school board member Melissa Enger, who raised questions about the referendum that went unanswered and she subsequently voted against it. The anger toward her by some of the other board members was evident, but it was her questioning that caused others, including myself, to look at the referendum critically. That evidently didn’t play well with other board members, because the chairperson and board decided to have their pound of flesh and discredit and humiliate Enger by launching an investigation into a post-prom party at Enger’s home where alcohol was allegedly served to minors.

The chairperson never disclosed the identity of Enger’s accuser. Yet, if the board placed any credibility in the accusation against Enger, it should have called on law enforcement for a separate investigation. Instead, it voted to use taxpayer money to hire a law firm to conduct what amounted to a McCarthy-ite witch hunt that proved untrue. Enger was absolved of guilt. Yet, the board thus far has offered no apology and refused to compensate Enger for the approximately $3,500 in legal fees she incurred protecting her name and reputation.

The board’s first step toward regaining credibility ought to be an apology to Enger and compensation for her legal expense.

It also needs to step back and stop defending and revisit its decision and the process it followed in hiring its consultant with no competitive bidding. I’m retired, but during a 35-year career in the public sector I spent much of my time working with consultants and professional service contracts and major capital purchases. I attended the board meeting on July 11 along with others with similar backgrounds and experience. We listened to the staff explanation and left unsatisfied with what was heard.

Space doesn’t permit a presentation or discussion of the concerns, nor is this column the proper venue for doing so, but they are many and should be investigated along with school board contracting procedures and protocols. That means an audit, not by a firm selected by the board, but by an independent entity — such as the office of the state auditor — with the necessary power to conduct and complete a critical review and recommend whatever corrective action is required.

As an aside, I found it disappointing and troubling that none of the board majority who earlier were anxious to pursue a case against Enger reacted critically to the numerous discrepancies that we heard during the staff presentation. None made any effort to challenge the staff to substantiate with documented facts what the board was being told. The staff works for the board, not the other way around. It was an entirely passive response when the utmost in due diligence was required.

I support public education, and I wanted to support the May 27 referendum and would have voted “yes” until I took note of the issues around the consultant and what was proposed in the referendum package. Schools are about students, teachers, bricks and mortar, classrooms, libraries, lunchrooms and infrastructure to support and facilitate learning. Yet, the referendum had millions of dollars for programs and facilities that in no way supported the academic goals of students and teachers. They may have been desirable, but they should not have been conflated with academic needs and, if included in the next referendum, should be part of a separate question.

There is work to be done, but a fresh start is required and it has to begin with the realization that mistakes were made, and that the responsibility for them rests squarely with the board itself.

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.)