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By Wes Mader Oct. 19, 2021

NEXUS, the School District’s consultant of choice has now been paid a total of $24.96 million as of January this year. Those are dollars for consulting, not dollars for material or labor for the projects that NEXUS recommends, and then collects a percentage of the total project cost. With the School Board asking for another 35 million, it seemed appropriate that taxpayers should know where their tax dollars go before dipping into their wallets again. For that purpose, Wes Mader who has been a columnist for the Prior Lake American for several years, submitted a column on Monday, October 18, that included verifiable facts regarding the District’s spending. The editor rejected the column.

Since we still believe that taxpayers should know how their tax dollars are being used, we have included the column that the Prior Lake American rejected. We bet you’ve never seen anything in the District’s newsletters or the American about how much NEXUS or other District consultants have been paid, but it is supposed to be public information. To bad the American won’t do some digging to find out and report, instead of censoring those who do.
By Wes Mader Oct. 19, 2021

By Wes Mader Oct. 19, 2021

Four years ago, voters approved a facilities bond referendum well in excess of $100 million, plus a 37% increase in the cost/student operating levy (dollars useable for teacher salaries). How soon we forget! What was supposed to be more than enough to meet future District needs, quickly became not enough and some teachers were terminated.

What taxpayers should know but haven’t been told, is that Nexus, the District’s consultant that planned and oversaw the referendum facility projects, has been paid $24.96 million since initially hired. This seems outrageous, considering that the $24.96 million did not pay for materials, labor or maintenance for a single square foot of facility space. What it did pay for was “technical services”, like the $426,511 authorized by the District’s finance director, for Nexus to consult on the purchase of AstroTurf for athletic fields. Numerous other examples are equally disturbing.

Tax payers are being asked for another $35 million for a stand-alone restricted technology fund. One stated purpose is to divert technology dollars historically included in the general fund, to other uses. How’s that for strategic planning? If $35 million is more than needed, the excess dollars can be used for anything “techie” like the latest and greatest iPads, but can’t be used to hire or pay teachers. Technology is absolutely vital to our Schools, but arbitrary spending is not.

Voters can vote YES or NO to the School Board’s request at a special election in just a week and a half, November 2. Based upon what I’ve heard in public, many residents, particularly those without school-age children, are totally unaware of the upcoming referendum. District Board members know that by scheduling the referendum in this off-election year instead of next year during general elections, voter turn-out will be minimum. This says something about the Board’s respect for District taxpayers.

Based on what I hear from parents who are engaged with School District staff, teachers are frustrated by increasing class size and demands, while needed support is being diminished. It seems that millions spent since the 2017 authorized major spending increases, accomplished nothing in terms of helping teachers going forward. Teachers are front-line workers in a fight to educate kids during very challenging times. They deserve community support (and the School Board’s), instead of a tangential and distracting effort to squeeze more dollars out of taxpayers.

Hopefully all agree the purpose of our public schools is to assure children are getting an education that prepares them for a lifetime in an ever-changing world (including skills to earn a living), and hopefully all agree that it can and should be done cost effectively. If yes, can’t we agree that success should be measured by results versus cost, like in the real world of business. However, School records regarding student performance versus cost are disappointing.

While proficiency in reading, math and science are critical for student development, tested proficiency levels of PLSAS students in these subjects for all grades over the past five years, shows continuous decline. While lack of in-school learning is partially responsible for last year’s performance drop, be reminded there was continuous decline before the pandemic. According to the latest available data from student testing this past spring, 41% were non-proficient in reading, 44% were non-proficient in math and 46% were non-proficient in science. While I have no basis to offer opinion on the validity of testing, the results shouldn’t be swept under the rug.

Spending data over the past five years is equally disturbing. Audits show District expenditures grew from $85.3 million in 2017 to $108.2 million in 2021, a 27% increase while student enrollment (reported in “pupil units”) increased by only 5%. For perspective, don’t forget that the past justification for $100+ million (2017 bond referendum), was to accommodate student population growth, that has turned out to be only 5 percent over 4 years. Also don’t miss the fact that dollars spent per pupil went from $9,285 in 2017 to $11,290 in 2021, an increase of 22% in 4 years while cumulative inflation was only 10.9%.

Readers can draw their own conclusions from the above data, but in my past business world, progress was measured by what was accomplished for dollars spent. Too often it seems that when tax dollars provide funding, those responsible for spending like to measure progress by how much money can be thrown at a project, instead of by results. Costs climbing while student performance is declining–this does not indicate positive progress.