Local view: Huge cost demands an auditThe people controlling the Duluth School Board will complain about the cost of an upcoming state audit of Independent School District 709 and its Long-Range Facilities Plan.
The people controlling the Duluth School Board will complain about the cost of an upcoming state audit of Independent School District 709 and its Long-Range Facilities Plan. But they’ve been very profligate with our money. Take the property at 3132 Greysolon Place, for example. Top dollar — $337,500 — was paid by the district for a piece of property no longer even needed for the plan. The property was put back on the market and sold for $160,000. The money lost there could pay for more than three audits.
Audits done annually cost the school district about $49,500. The more-focused state audit probably will cost less.
Whatever the cost, it is justified to get independent verification of a financial investment of nearly half a billion dollars, including interest, over the next 20 years for the Red Plan.
One person, Marcia Stromgren, provided some vital assistance in collecting names and producing the petition requesting the audit by the state. Others helped to whatever degree they could, and I thank all of them. But this was primarily my initiative. I started collecting signatures the winter before last. I went out in the evenings and came back with pocketsful of frozen pens. I went out in the snow and, later, in the rain, with my clipboard in a plastic bag. I knocked on doors in Lakeside, Piedmont Heights, and across the Hillside and Lincoln Park. I visited virtually every house along Grand Avenue, from the freeway through Morgan Park.
Most of the people I spoke to signed my petition. A small number, however, told me they believed in the Red Plan and didn’t want an audit. I responded, “If you think an audit is unnecessary, you should have no fear of it. It should only validate what you believe to be true.”
A few said an audit only would cause more trouble and hurt in the school district. I replied, “If a problem does exist, it won’t go away just because you choose to ignore it. Ultimately, the district will be hurt more by denial. The core of education already is being hurt. I believe the reason for perennial deficits and teacher layoffs is much more complex and self-inflicted than is being portrayed.”
A few agreed with me that the Red Plan was a big scam, but they said it was too late. My response: “We haven’t paid the bill, and much of the financing scheme has never been independently verified. We need to hold people accountable for promises made. If we don’t, what’s to prevent another slick, aggressive, corporate operator like Johnson Controls from coming into our town and doing this to us again?”
A few made the argument that the district already has an annual audit. To them I explained, “The CPA firm audits only verify current commitments to contractors. There never has been an audit of any part of this huge, multi-million-dollar project. The Red Plan has a lot of loose edges. Soft costs — design and engineering — appear to be running nearly twice as high as they should be. The School Board rubberstamped another $2.4 million of change orders in the last calendar year. On a project of this magnitude, more oversight should have been embedded in the process. The larger the project, the more scrutiny there should be.”
Superintendent Bill Gronseth pointed to “distrust” in the community when the decision was made not to pursue a levy referendum last spring. Verification of facts from an independent authority actually may help allay some of that distrust. The district and the School Board should be supportive of a state audit being brought as a result of the petition I carried. I’ve facilitated something they claim to want but were unable to get on their own.
Petitioning your government is the most basic form of democracy. It’s the most direct way citizens can demand accountability. I can’t think of a more appropriate time to use it than this.
Loren Martell of Duluth is a former School Board candidate and longtime critic of the Duluth school district’s Long-Range Facilities Plan. He led a petition that collected 2,375 signatures calling for a state audit of the district.