The St. Louis County School District’s efforts to put a positive spin on the reprimand it received from the Office of Administrative Hearings reveals a leadership wildly out of touch with reality.
If this were simply a case of the district inadvertently straying afoul of the law, as officials claimed in their press release, why did they fight this case in the courts instead of admitting their “unintentional” error and saving taxpayers thousands of dollars wasted on legal fees?
The answer is obvious. District officials knew full well that using tax dollars to promote the passage of the bond issue was unlawful. They also knew the information they were passing on to voters was inaccurate and designed to paint the bleakest scenario possible should the referendum fail.
The OAH judges said as much in their ruling, which detailed numerous instances where the district either exaggerated the consequences if the referendum failed or used outdated and inaccurate financial projections to bolster its arguments.
But the district glossed over those details in their press statement, suggesting that the line between promotional and informational literature was very fine. That might be so in some instances, but not in this case. And board members’ own actions betrayed their intent. At a well-attended public meeting in Cook just weeks after the bond vote, board member Zelda Bruns acknowledged that some of the financial claims made by the district were inaccurate. As she did so, board Chairman Robert Larson sought to keep her quiet. Larson knew full well what the district had done, but he lacked the common decency exhibited by Bruns, who showed integrity in apologizing for the board’s actions.
Even more galling is the school district’s implication in its press statement that districts can use tax dollars to promote passage of a referendum. Such a view flies in the face of everything the district has been told by both the Minnesota School Board Association and their previous Superintendent Charles Rick, not to mention the Court of Appeals in an earlier ruling in this case. Larson’s professed confusion over whether districts can promote referenda is either the worst-case of short-term memory loss we’ve encountered or a deliberate deception.
A 1966 Minnesota attorney general’s opinion made it plain that districts can’t use tax dollars to promote a referendum, but can only provide neutral information on the ballot question. Rick stressed that same view in three attempts to pass an operating levy when he cautioned the board on the materials it could produce to inform people about the vote. Larson was present for those discussions and surely knew that it was improper to use tax funds to promote the passage of the bond referendum.
Moreover, he and other school officials clearly understood that when they appeared before the OAH judges in public hearings in December and January. They argued strenuously that they were not promoting the passage of the bond issue and the newsletters were strictly informational. Now that the judges have found otherwise, Larson has changed his tune, implying that it may not be illegal to do so. He’s flat out wrong and his constantly changing rationale reveals volumes about his lack of integrity.
It’s disappointing and it underscores the need for new leadership in this district. If Larson is unwilling to learn from his mistakes, let alone admit them, district residents can no longer trust him. We wouldn’t accept this type of behavior from a sheriff or a mayor who routinely violated the law and refused to face the consequences. We certainly shouldn’t accept such behavior from school officials, who are supposed to be educators, after all. What a lesson Chairman Larson is providing the young people of our district— that it’s just fine to mislead people to get your way, and then make up new stories to excuse your behavior. Robert Larson, in no way, should be chairman of any school district, anywhere. He doesn’t deserve the title or the authority.