St. Louis County school district reprimanded
The St. Louis County school district was reprimanded Friday, but avoided more serious penalties in its bout with the state's Office of Administrative Hearings.
The St. Louis County school district was reprimanded Friday, but avoided more serious penalties in its bout with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings.
The three-judge panel, which heard evidence in December 2013 and January, said in its written conclusion that a reprimand “was all that is warranted,” after concluding the district failed to report promotional materials exceeding $750 during its 2009 bond referendum.
The judges also determined the complainants, including Tower Mayor Stephen Abrahamson, failed to establish that the district acted to conceal its actions or intentionally failed to file campaign finance reports for its promotional materials.
Had the panel determined negligence, the district, and its School Board members, could have faced a civil penalty up to $5,000 and possible criminal prosecution.
“We never did try to deceive voters,” said Board Chairperson Robert Larson, one of only two board members remaining from the 2009 bond campaign. “We tried to tell people what was happening. I guess I never got so upset about the business of trying to deceive people, because we didn’t.”
Conversely, Abrahamson called the reprimand, “vindication for what we were trying to say all along.”
“People do make mistakes,” he said. “We don’t want other districts to go through the same thing. You’ve got to promote fairly.”
The district produced multiple promotional materials in the months leading up to the nearly $80 million referendum, which passed and resulted in a host of infrastructural and curricular changes to what is the largest geographical school district in the state. Each of the materials cost between $2,400 and $3,000 to produce, figures that required the district to report half those totals as campaign disbursement. The OAH panel expressed leniency because the school board had encountered campaign finance reporting that had only begun to include school boards just prior to 2009, when the Minnesota Supreme Court determined as much.
“Consequently,” the panel wrote, “the school district had little guidance with respect to … reporting requirements.”
“I don’t remember us discussing reporting requirements,” he said.
Johnson Controls, the multinational conglomerate the district used to help develop the district improvement plan, was not listed in the lawsuit. But it did produce one of the promotional materials in questions. In the lawsuit, Abrahamson and Tim Kotzian, another Tower resident listed as co-complainant, claimed Johnson Controls used old financial projections to help serve the district’s aim.
Lyle Schumann, area general manager for Johnson Controls, responded to the OAH decision by issuing a statement, “Johnson Controls provided the school district with all available data throughout the planning process to develop a comprehensive facilities and operations strategy which improved the educational experience for students and staff, and helped create financial stability for the district.”
With the OAH decision now behind it, Larson said it’s time to move forward. The district is welcoming a new superintendent, Steve Sallee, formerly of the state’s LeRoy-Ostrander Public School, later this year. The district’s Cherry School is being remodeled this summer. He said the aftereffects of the bond are still palpable.
“We’ve gone from excitement to satisfaction,” he said. “There’s a good feeling about our schools now. We still go through bumps, but there’s growth and we’ve got some money to do some things.”
Meanwhile, the decision allows Abrahamson to take a breath after a long fight that included years of meetings with attorneys, hearings and the like.
“I used to question myself,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I believe it was worth it. If you don’t stand up for yourself, then you don’t complain.”
He laments the loss of Tower’s high school to the project, and still wishes the social impact of sending Tower’s secondary students to schools across the district would have been more strongly considered.
“It did have a negative impact on two communities - Tower and Cook,” he said. “My philosophy is to move on and do the best we can with what we have.
“I will say this in a positive sense, we upgraded the K through six school in Tower.”