I’ll be back to post an initial reply to the Duluth News Tribune Editors who mentioned me in their editorial today. Afterwards I’ll compose a longer reply and send it in to the Trib. I can’t give whatever I write away until is shows up in the Trib or they won’t publish it. So my first effort here will be that – a first effort.
I told the Trib editors when I was running for the School Board last fall that the Red Plan was completed and the top priority was to insure that the consequences of the building project, overstuffed classes and a terrible inequity between eastern and western schools were addressed. On the strength of that and despite my spiteful, if accurate, description of recent Duluth Schools Boards as having been the most incompetent in Minnesota history the editors did endorse me even though they offered something of an apology to its readers by calling me “who?” when they did.
My priority hasn’t changed. To accomplish this I need the best financial information about the District I can get. So far our Chief Financial Officer has chosen to be stingy with facts and his stonewalling has been backed up by the Superintendent and the current board majority. It is not perhaps surprising that I am skeptical of such data supression. Even the editors of the Trib recently lambasted the whole Board by calling for transparency. Who can blame them? Three years ago the Editors were made to look foolish when they took the CFO’s data and proudly proclaimed that there would soon be a $32 million windfall from Red Plan savings to spend on our schools. Instead our Board (while vociferously denying it) borrowed millions of dollars from the general fund to pay off Red Plan bonding which resulted in their adding about ten kids to all our classrooms.
I see only three solutions. Get six million dollars more annually from the state; raise local property taxes by the same amount; figure out how to successfully teach with far too many kids in our classrooms. I think only the last of these solutions is on the table. Is it any wonder that I want accurate financial data?
I could have helped prevent this from happening had I been elected eight years ago but the Fargo Forum’s Ralph Doty chose to write a column which put my election off by eight years guaranteeing that there would be no fiscal scrutiny let alone brakes on the Red Plan. When fellow candidate Gary Glass noted that Johnson Controls would likely be given $33.4 million the Chief Financial Officer must have been behind the falsehood that JCI would only receive $4.5 million. Only Gary Glass was elected and thus fated to be the lone voice on the Board for some middle ground on building construction.
There is a long history of Financial dissembling about the costs of the Red Plan. In fact, the recent state auditor’s report verified one thing that the much vilified Art Johnston told me. The Auditor explained that nearly 27% of the Red Plan expenses were “soft costs” which went to JCI and its subcontractors. Usually these fees amount to 12 to 14% of the cost of a building project. Gary Glass not ISD 709 got it right except that without a school board riding herd soft costs soared from $33.4 to $84 million. What JCI got should be public data according to a recent State Supreme Court ruling. It would take a school board majority to demand that information. That’s unlikely with the current CFO and the current Board.
A state audit of the Red Plan would not have been necessary if only the CFO had simply made this information available to the public. Art Johnston has been begging for this same information for four and a half years. Since the CFO was forced to hand this public data over to the State Auditor under duress it is Art Johnston that has earned vindication.
And yet I am wrong to call this slim report an audit. The final page of the eight page report explicitly admits that was not an audit. The Tribune, the Superintendent and Chair Mike Miernicki, are treating this very limited peak into District finances as a vindication for the District. I guess that’s on the strength of the Auditor finding no criminality. I never expected it to show criminal intent. I only expected their report to show how slick operators can milk taxpayers out of fifty million dollars. It was possible with 1. a no bid contract, 2. no public vote, 3. an incurious school board majority, and 4. the ability to hide public data behind the veil of the program manager. The State Auditor in no way examined any of these circumstances and offered no opinions as to the business acumen of the losers in this business relationship. Neither did the Auditor shed any tears for students with ten too many kids in their classrooms. She had no opinion. She did no audit. She took her sweet time.
It would be a shame if the Auditor’s eight-page bandaid served to endorse the legacy of misinformation and stonewalling by the CFO, the School Board, and just maybe by the editors of the Duluth News Tribune. The Trib is undeniably right in saying that there is still great resentment for the Red Plan. I don’t think it will begin to fade until there is something approaching honesty about what transpired. As for me I am not terribly driven by resentment. If anything I look on the Red Plan’s wreckage with great detachment in the way of an academic. Besides, emotion only serves to cloud the path to solutions. But that does not mean I am in any mood to ignore a long history of data suppression and outright falsehood. That’s the forte of the editors of the Duluth News Tribune.