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Referundums are necessary and important for public school building projects

The following article was written in response to an article by the Minnsesota School Board Association advocating to remove the right of citizens to vote on large school building projects.

I'm a school board member in Duluth.  I respectfully disagree that schools or school boards should be able levy for building projects without a referendum.  In a perfect world, maybe I would be inclined to agree.  But I think that having referendums on building projects are more important now than ever.   Here's my reasons:

1.      There has been several large school projects built without referendums in Minnesota (I'm aware of three).  The track record on these schools is not good. 

 The first school was Arlington High School in St. Paul.  This was built in 1996.  (I believe the cost was around $50 million):  a state of the arts school.  It closed in 2011due to poor planning process that had exaggerated the need for this new building in the first place.

 The second school built was the Secondary Technical Campus (STC) here in Duluth.  Also built in 1996 for about $7 million.  We closed it three years ago before it was even paid for, and we still own the building and can't sell it.

 The final school building project funded without a referendum was also in Duluth and is just being finished.  This is the infamous Red Plan, which was a $315 million plan (which closed the STC and many other buildings) and rebuilt or built new every school in Duluth.   If you think that having a referendum is controversial, start building schools without referendums!!  The fall-out from Duluth doing this has been decimating to our school.  Since I've been on the board (elected in 2009 and reelect last year), our school student population has dropped 1800 ADMs or 18%.  We have removed 250 teachers (FTEs) positions.  Our class sizes are unacceptably large. We have a very distrusting population of parents and citizens.  School board meetings are the epitome of dysfunctionality and are the laughing stock of the city.

 You rightful may say that the downsides of these three schools  projects were not solely caused by the lack of a referendum.   But I think that having a public debate and an insistence of having an open process and public scrutiny would likely have eliminated some of the above failures and controversies.

 There are other reasons to be against giving school boards the right to levy for building projects: 

2.      School board are defacto volunteers (maybe the boards in St. Paul in Mpls are different). We are barely paid, and we have no staff or budgets.  Even most county board commissioners have access to staff and budgets that enables those boards to make informed decisions.  Governments like the Feds and State of Minnesota all have lots of staff that reviews Federal building projects, or State bonding projects.   School boards members do not have the resources to be the sole determinator in spending $100s of million of dollars. 

3.      Sure, large governments like the Fed and States obviously could not function if every building project had to be approved by voters.  Can you imagine would our ballot would look like!  We would be literally voting, every year, on thousands of projects that are not in our area and we now nothing about.   Government could not function if all projects had to be voted on.

On the other hand, school districts are very local. And everyone voting is immediately impacted and should have knowledge of what is going on.  Referendums are an ideal way to have democracy and citizen input on local building projects.  Having a building referendum once every 30 years or so certainly should not be a hindrance on a school district or their voters.

4.      Not having a referendum is no panacea for an imperfect referendum system.   I certainly hope that local school board are not given the authority to bypass referendums due to the lack of oversight and expertise.  So even if referendums were eliminated, the oversight for building would probably be moved to a state agency.  Before you think this might still be an improvement, look at how difficult it is for state bonding bills to pass and how many years it usually takes.  In neither the Feds nor the States, local authorities do not have the ability to build anything without getting approval of Congress or Bonding Bills passed by legislators.  I understand that California has a political process that decides on new schools—how would you like to try convincing a bureaucracy that your project is better than your neighboring school districts! In the Federal sector (I was on a design team for many years in the feds) projects must go through Congress.  All of these processes take years!   So be careful what you wish for!   Referendums, do give a level of local control, as imperfect as it is.

5.      It must also be recognized that school districts already have authority to approve and levy money for many smaller construction projects and maintenance under various legal authorities.  It is only for the large projects that referendums are needed. 

6.      I think it is fair to say that the Superintendents have a lot of influence on how school boards operate and what decisions are made.  Superintendents have staff, but I do not think that such staff are necessary neutral.  

Our board has selected new Superintendents; and I've found it concerning that every potential superintendents' resume that we've reviewed has emphasized all the building projects that “they” have accomplished, or the referendums that  “they” have passed.  Superintendents apparently have a built in bias to build more schools, and school boards are too often inexperienced nor have the resources to question Superintendents.  

7.      Even Superintendents, with their staff, rarely (if at all) have registered architects or professional engineers (I am a professional engineer) on staff that can organize design processes and building projects.   Consequently, Superintendents (as biased as I think they generally are (see #6)) hire outside consultants. 

This becomes a very lucrative business for the consultants, and often leads to poor decisions making and poor contract administration. 

Cost benefit analysis and the necessity to build schools in the first place is very easily biased in favor of the consultant that will enormously benefit from having their analyses adopted by a Board or Superintendents—people that have insufficient expertise to do technical reviews.

Having a referendum will not fix all of those problems, but it will at least allow the public to weight in on matters that impact their community, and decide whether they really need a Taj Mahal.

8.      Having referendums puts a limit on how much a building will eventually cost.  Having no referendum can allow building project costs to spiral out of control.   If there is not a referendum limiting the final cost, consultants and/or a compliant or uninformed admistration can easily raise taxes to cover underestimated costs with impunity.  When there is no limit to how much school buildings cost, the building costs, not surprisingly, go up due to extravagant but unnecessary architecture that is now covered by taxes that can easily be raised, or by costs that may have been underestimated in the first place.    I think that the cost overrides that are infamous with other government agency buildings  (built without referendums) happen because cost containment is nearly impossible without the referendum.   

9.      As confusing as the tax certification process in Minnesota is, it is virtually impossible for citizens to know what's going on.  Having a referendum as least allows citizen to have a bit of understanding on where their tax money is being spent.

10.  The Review and Comment reviewed by the Minn. Dept. of Education is not a real review of the feasibility of a school plan.   I'm not aware of MDE ever giving more than a cursory rubber stamp on the plans.  This is for two reasons:  MDE thinks that independent School district are truly independent and largely immune to their oversight; and consequently MDE does not have professional staff that can do a real review of the economics need or the engineered plan, even if they wanted to.

11.  Having a referendum in a community when a school has to be built forces that school to become a trusted member of their community.   And that is good. It is all too easy to complain about citizens balking about paying for new buildings.  But the real reason is often the lack of candor with citizens causing distrust.  It would be too easy to bypass that school/community trust interface when there is no referendum.

12.  New building advocacy groups can morph into plans that become excuses to close schools and combine districts.   The excuses given are often suspect; but well meaning but inexperienced school board often become prey to such biased reports.  Removing referendums on school projects would worsen the distrust that some community have toward their schools caused by closing schools and merging districts.

13.  Yes referendums are sometime difficult to pass.  But often that is because of the poor promotions of advocacy groups.  We all know schools are for the children, but to base a campaign on slogans like “It for the Children!!”  are really being laughed at.   Most of us know that teachers and communities are more important than new buildings in giving our children a quality education.   A public that may already be distrustful of the school easily suspects this apparent “hiding behind children to build new building”.  This justification is increasing ridiculed by most people that know that schools are as much big business (rightfully so) as education.

14.  Like it or not, we do have to compare our schools to private and charter schools.   These schools do not use public funds for building (charter schools do get money from MDE to operate, and to pay debt service for construction loans).  People send their children to these schools.  And people wonder why they are paying for public school buildings with their taxes when other schools are using the regular method of private finance (and professional review) to build buildings.

Art Johnston

37 N. 93rd Av. W,

Duluth, MN 55808

715 360 6629

September 18, 2014

This article is in response to an article, by Superintendent Klaehn in the Minnesota School Board Association Magazine which advocated removing the referendum requirement for large building projects.  



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