Minneapolis school officials spent $10,000 to hire the former school board chairman to help with last-minute negotiations over renovations to the Phillips community pool.
Interim Superintendent Michael Goar used money from a special account that doesn’t require school board approval to hire Richard Mammen, raising concern from some school board members and pool advocates who say the extra help was not needed.
Rebecca Gagnon, the school board’s treasurer, said she “had no idea that this had happened.”
Gagnon said she saw Mammen showing up to board meetings any time athletics or the pool came up for debate, which led her to “jokingly” ask if Mammen was getting paid.
Gagnon said she doesn’t understand why Mammen was paid $10,000 for a deal that was worked on by numerous district staff.
Goar had clashed with school board members over an additional nearly $2 million for the project, saying he wanted to slow down and see if the cash-strapped district had better uses for the money.
Some school board members said the pool will be an invaluable teaching and recreational facility and were angered by Goar’s apprehension about the project. Mammen came in to help reach a deal for that pool that ultimately led to Minneapolis schools getting better access to park facilities.
Mammen’s contract was paid with an account from Achieve Minneapolis, the nonprofit partner of the school district.
The contract required that Mammen would work with district staff, “related public agencies and community partners” to build a stronger collaborative between the park and school officials so that students would have access to more sports facilities.
District officials say Mammen played a vital role in researching the district’s previous agreements with the Park Board. They also said the contract was “relatively small.”
Goar was on vacation and could not be reached, but Robert Doty, the district’s chief operations officer, said the agreement with the Park Board had to happen quickly because of critical funding deadlines for the pool. At the time these discussions were happening, it was the end of the school year and hundreds were getting laid off at the central office, part of a downsizing plan put in place by Goar.
“I don’t have a staff of researchers that can go back three years to pull contracts,” Doty said.
The Phillips pool project has been underway since 2011, with funding coming from various private donors, local colleges, the county, the state Legislature and the school board, which committed $150,000 annually for the next five years to cover operating expenses.
But the project has come up well short on funding. In early May, the school and park officials began discussing the possibility of the school district giving more money to help the Park Board cover construction costs.
District officials say they seized on that to create a broader deal that would give the district priority scheduling for other sports facilities, such as hockey arenas and soccer fields. School officials are also asking for certified lifeguards and swimming lessons for all students.
But Denny Bennett, the board president of Minneapolis Swims, the booster group behind the pool, said he was “shocked” to hear the district hired Mammen.
Mammen “told me as long as he was president of the board, we would never see a penny of [construction money] for that pool,” Bennett said. “It’s stunning to me that they would hire him.”
Bennett said Mammen never spoke to him during the months that Bennett was trying to get the district to commit to funding the pool.
Liz Wielinski, the Park Board president, said she also never met with Mammen during the negotiations. “He might have been a vital player, but I can’t confirm that,” she said.
Mammen said his role was to help district staff comb through service agreements, maintenance schedules and other documents that would help land a robust agreement that would benefit youth sports throughout the district, not just a single pool.
The contract showed that Mammen was paid for 20 days of work, through the end of June. Mammen said he actually started working on the pool issue in May, which means he was paid for about two months of work. He said he worked well more than 100 hours on the project.
“People are being cynical and saying this is just about giving Mammen a contract, what does he know,” Mammen said. “I’d argue I know as much as anyone on that board and if there was someone else I could find that had a better perspective on what’s really possible, boy I would have hired that person long ago.”
Mammen spent hours pouring through facilities agreements and other documents that dated back at least three years. That information helped Doty and staff craft the proposed agreement, he said.
Doty said the district used a discretionary fund that the superintendent has with Achieve Minneapolis because those funds are “set aside for unique projects” and this fell within that scope.
Doty added that it was important that this agreement go beyond just the Philips pool.
Mammen “was a big help in helping us do that,” he said. “I don’t believe the contract was a waste of money. We got good use out of that contract, and the city will be the benefactor of that.”