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Our view: Legal but short on transparency

No, nothing apparently was done in secret or outside of the law when spending changes were made, a News Tribune investigation published Sunday made clear. But the report also left little doubt that when it came to the massive and controversial Red Plan, there was plenty of room for more transparency.

And really, as much transparency as possible would have been appreciated by Duluth school district residents paying the $315 million tab to build new schools in Duluth and rebuild others.

That’s a lot of taxpayer money, after all. And so is $8.7 million, an amount then-School Board Chairwoman Ann Wasson signed off on in 2012 for new construction, unexpected expenses and “reimbursables,” things needed immediately on job sites to keep work going that were purchased by contractors who then sought to be paid back.

Wasson was well within her authority to sign off on the expenses. Written into the Red Plan was a resolution allowing the head of the School Board to approve such project changes in the name of practicality. It’s actually a pretty standard practice, according to the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor. It just makes sense for public entities with many contracts to delegate a single person to approve such changes, using a set dollar amount or a percentage, Sunday’s story said.

While the School Board as a whole didn’t approve individual expenditures like these, which are common on construction sites and especially large construction projects, “Every dollar that we distributed to (Johnson Controls, which was in charge of the Red Plan work) showed up in board reports,” Bill Hanson, the district’s director of business services, said in the story.

That may have met a threshold for accountability, but the head of the School Board could have gone a step further and reported to the board at its next public meeting any time such changes had to be signed for. That would have been the transparent thing to do. And considering all the criticism and skepticism surrounding the Red Plan, an immediate and full accounting of unexpected costs could have gone a long way toward building trust and helping assure taxpayers their money was being spent responsibly.

The $8.7 million included $3.1 million for “reimbursables”; $1.3 million for things like asbestos abatement and other unexpected, gotta-take-care-of-it-now work; and nearly $4.3 million in new construction when, for example, it was decided that Denfeld and East high schools both would get Secondary Technical Center programs.

There were three other similar job orders during the duration of the plan that changed agreements with Johnson Controls, the News Tribune’s Jana Hollingsworth further reported. One shifted fees but didn’t increase them and two reduced what the district paid the company when it was decided less work would be done at Historic Old Central High School and at Congdon Park Elementary School.

That’s all good information taxpayers want and deserve — and could have heard in the name of fuller transparency at the time they were incurred, not two years later.