St. Paul School District leaders have called for an audit of their own facilities department following reports that an ambitious makeover of buildings is running $179 million over budget.
Although it’s reassuring to see the district turn to an independent auditor for help, the need to do so raises questions: Why weren’t the costs monitored regularly and understood sooner? And as decisions were made about proceeding with projects, who was paying attention to the overall budget?
The embarrassing financial miscalculation damages confidence in the district’s leaders. The school board and Superintendent Joe Gothard need to get to the bottom of what happened, be transparent with the community and fix the process.
As the district’s chief of staff, Cedrick Baker, told school board members this week, “There needs to be a change in how we operate internally.” Baker was assigned by Gothard to put together an outside leadership-and-review team in conjunction with the audit.
In 2016, the school board approved a facilities master plan for its 75 buildings across the district. At that time, the estimated cost was $484 million over five years. For high-priority projects at 18 of those buildings, costs ballooned by a total of $179 million. Some of the work was completed last year, other projects are in progress and some have been delayed.
In October, board members learned that the cost of improvements at Como Park Senior High alone had risen $13 million from the initial estimate, the Humboldt High project would cost $16 million more, and American Indian Magnet school project would cost $15 million more. Following that report, in March a budget advisory committee that included citizens recommended an independent audit to “ensure that best practices are being followed and to allow for transparency.”
In the time between the 2016 adoption of the plan and now, the district has had three superintendents and substantial turnover in the facilities staff and the elected board. That raises concerns about whether inconsistent leadership contributed to a lack of budget oversight over buildings.
To pay for facilities projects, the St. Paul district can impose property tax hikes and issue bonds without voter approval. In 2016, the board used that authority to raise taxes on a median-valued home (at that time $151,500) $30 per year.
Adding to questions about the district’s financial management, the facilities area isn’t the only area of the district budget with overruns. According to a St. Paul Pioneer Press story, spending on operations and custodial work over the past three years exceeded the budget by $3.1 million, or 6%.
And last week, officials reported that the district still faces a $3.1 million budget deficit for the coming school year. In light of the property tax hike that voters approved last November and the additional 2% per-pupil funding increase expected from the state this year, it’s understandable that voters are scratching their heads about the district’s money woes.
John Brodrick, the board’s longest serving member, recently shared a question from a constituent that sums up the district’s credibility problem: “We passed a referendum. We still have a deficit. What’s up?”
That’s a question that district leaders need to address. Based on their findings — along with those of the independent auditors looking at facilities — district leaders should provide better oversight of budgeting and spending. Taxpayers deserve no less.