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March 18, 2017 Column “Mistakes were Made.”

By John Diers

“Mistakes were made.” The phrase conjures up Watergate, Iran Contra, and Iraq. It’s a convenient rhetorical dodge and a way to avoid accountability. Let’s hope it isn’t the epitaph for the next school referendum. Right now, I have my doubts.

All of us make mistakes and learn from them, and It’s charitable to forgive them when they’re unforeseen, less so when they’re the predictable product of flawed decisionmaking. You will remember last May School District 719 put up a $150 million referendum in response to growing enrollment in Prior Lake Schools. A thousand more students are expected over the next 10 years, and clearly more classrooms are needed, but voters overwhelmingly rejected the referendum. It was too much money, and too many dollars were earmarked for athletic facilities and other non-academic facility improvements. Voters were, also, troubled by the non-competitive process used by the administration to select a consultant, Nexus Solutions, to manage referendum projects.

The referendum failure is sad for the students and teachers in our schools and it should have been a learning experience for the school board, but, in a slap at voters and accountability, the school administration and the board, ignoring the need for competitive proposals, went on to engage Nexus for additional projects that paid the firm upwards of $8 million—again, and for emphasis, that’s $8 Million of taxpayer money for a sole source, non-competitive contract.

There’s more, because, now, the administration is back before the school board seeking approval for yet another Nexus contract, this time for building maintenance projects worth nearly $6 million—once again absent any public selection, or bidding.

Fortunately, this time the administration’s recommendation faced stiff questioning at the last school board meeting from board members Mary Frantz and Melissa Enger. Frantz had concerns about contract language and costs and their relationship to the scope of work, questioning if legal counsel had reviewed the contract. Enger, referring to a similar situation that occurred in Duluth was more blunt.
“It looks like, frankly, we are being pulled into a scam. This has turned into a cancer in our community and it needs to be recognized.”
Citing the absence of three of its members Board Chair Richard Wolf moved to table a decision until the next meeting, when the full board could be present.
More questions need to be put to the staff and the administration, and, hopefully, at the next board meeting we’ll hear some credible answers. Two of these questions come to mind. Why does the district need a general consultant to oversee facilities projects, and collect mega bucks, and why wasn’t the consultant, chosen by the district, selected in a competitive process, especially when it can turn around and direct the work and the dollars to subcontractors of its choosing, absent competitive bidding. When Nexus selects a supplier or a subcontractor, the district has no way to verify how much Nexus is paying that subcontractor. That question has been asked of school district staff in the
past and the response, incredibly, has been that it’s information that’s proprietary to Nexus. It needs to be stated that there are such things as “turnkey” and design-build projects that are awarded to one contractor, but they’re strictly defined and competitively bid and managed. That’s not the case, here. It’s a complete myth when the district claims, that costs go down when you hand a consultant a bag of money and just tell it to do the work.

The district should explore hiring, and retaining, a competent engineer-administrator on staff with some “real world” business and contract experience. That person could provide the oversight and necessary management to determine if, and when, projects are required and initiate a bidding process that would result in minimum cost. The consultant, “just trust us” approach, is a loser that any credibly experienced businessperson would recognize and avoid. That’s why it’s such nonsense when district officials applaud whenever consultant managed projects come in under budget, completely ignoring that it was the consultant who set the budget in the first place.

Let’s take care not to blame Nexus for this sad and sorry situation. Nexus, like any business, exists to serve its clients and make money. It’s done what district staff and the school board asked. That’s where “mistakes were made.” That’s where the accountability and the consequences belong, and that’s where learning and change are needed.

The concern is whether it will happen before the next referendum.

Please read more at the Prior Lake American: http://bit.ly/2mE7Q1q

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.)