Top officials in the St. Louis County Schools have an obligation to apologize to the residents and taxpayers of the district for their decision to win passage of the controversial bond referendum in 2009 through a misinformation campaign.
While the final report of a three-judge panel of administrative law judges doesn’t demand an apology, it does reprimand school district officials for what they did. While that case focused on campaign finance disclosure, the underlying issue in the case was far broader and far more troubling than the district’s failure to file a campaign finance report. And the judges made note repeatedly in their decision of instances in which the district disseminated information to voters that was inaccurate, outdated, and one-sided, or was unfairly presented in order to convince voters to support the district’s bond measure.
Indeed, the judge’s decision reads very much like news stories, editorials, and commentaries that have appeared in this newspaper regularly over the past five years. They agreed that the district’s portrayal of its financial crisis was significantly overblown, as this newspaper has argued for years, and that district officials grossly exaggerated the effects of a no vote. They found that information presented on the tax implications of a yes vote was unfair.
These facts, combined with the decision by school officials in July or August of 2009 to suspend work on updated financial projections (projections that would have revealed the district’s much-improved financial condition) argue very strongly of intent by school officials and representatives of Johnson Controls to mislead voters.
It is now up to the state auditor, and possibly other investigators, to find out which officials were involved in what is, most certainly, one of the most significant public scandals in recent years in St. Louis County.
The voters had every reason to believe the claims that the school district presented in brochures and newsletters in the fall of 2009. By nature, we expect that local school officials, who are supposed to be educators after all, would only seek to inform us. To have systematically deceived the public, as officials in ISD 2142 clearly did, is the ultimate violation of the public’s trust.
We can draw a number of conclusions from this sad and shocking abuse of official authority. Among them are:
‰ Board chair Robert Larson must step down. Mr. Larson was chair of the school board at the time that his school district undertook its campaign of misinformation. He was in a position to know better, and either failed utterly in his oversight role or openly sanctioned the dissemination of misinformation to the public. Either way, he is ultimately responsible. Even more damning is that he made statements, under oath, this past January, that were demonstrably false. In every ethical sense, he has forfeited the right to his office, and should in no way serve as chairman of the board. Keeping him in such a position only adds further embarrassment to the district.
‰ Business manager Kim Johnson should be asked to resign, or be fired. Johnson was in the best position to understand the district’s financial situation. It is undisputed that she knew at least six months prior to the referendum vote that the district’s finances had improved significantly, yet she said nothing as outdated and false information was sent to voters right up until the election. The state auditor should determine to what degree Johnson may have conspired with JCI officials and others in the district to keep the public in the dark about the district’s financial improvement.
‰ The district needs another law firm. The actions of attorney Steven Knutson have not furthered the district’s interests in any way, but have simply filled the coffers of his legal practice at the expense of the taxpayers. As the judges noted in their decision, much of what the district put out to voters could not reasonably be read as anything other than one-sided and promotional, which was the primary issue in the evidentiary hearing. Indeed, every single judge that ever examined the materials over three years of litigation came to the same conclusion. Once the Supreme Court had weighed in on the issue, there was little left to debate. An attorney truly representing the interests of his client, would have urged district officials at that point to file the required disclosure and settle the case. Instead, he wasted everybody’s time and money as he dragged out a simple case through constant objections, consuming three days of testimony that succeeded only in digging a deeper hole for his clients. He had no case, and yet the entire time he had two attorneys sitting there, on the clock. It was an astonishing waste of resources that would only be compounded were Knutson to convince the board to appeal this decision. An appeal has no chance of success, and Knutson knows it. The district would be wise to go back to its old firm.
‰ The school district should never again do business with JCI. Board chair Larson, who has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for Johnson Controls for years, likes to say that the district wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the Fortune 500 company. He’s right about that— it was JCI that produced the misleading materials that have now given the district a serious black eye. JCI stood to gain millions from the passage of the referendum, and they obviously didn’t care how they accomplished that goal. In the end, they knew it would be school officials who would have to face the consequences of JCI’s misdeeds.
‰ The complainants deserve credit for their efforts. Both the named complainants, Steve Abrahamson and Tim Kotzian, who put their reputations on the line, and the hundreds of district residents who donated financially to support this legal effort deserve the public’s admiration. It can be a thankless task to take on the government at any level, but doing so, particularly in a case like this, is the definition of citizenship. As Americans, we don’t question the heroism of those we send overseas to fight on our behalf, but as our founding fathers well knew, the real threat to our system of government comes not from foreign foes, but from apathy on the part of our own people. If we, as citizens, fail to stand up when our government abuses its power, or wrongs the public in such a manner as we have witnessed here, then our system of government will not long endure. Those who fought this fight are, in every sense, heroic, in that they have taken on the role of defenders of our system of government, and ultimately of our freedom.
‰ While the issues surrounding this campaign finance disclosure case should now be settled, there is more work to be done. Ultimately, those who made the decision to mislead voters, as well as the Minnesota Department of Education through the Review and Comment document, should be held accountable as well. We urge the state auditor and the St. Louis County Attorney to pick up that trail and investigate further. If public officials, including JCI representatives, knowingly presented information to the public and to state officials that was materially false, exaggerated, outdated, or misleading, that constitutes a criminal offense and it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Anything less is to condone official misconduct.
In the end, this closely-watched case will be a cautionary tale to school districts around the state. The St. Louis County School District will wear this black mark for years to come. And district officials should begin to recognize who left them in this position. As the three-judge panel noted, it was Johnson Controls that produced an initial publication that contained almost all of the misleading information, and that was subsequently republished by the district in its newsletters. The district made the mistake of trusting JCI officials to have their interests in mind. Instead, it appears JCI officials had their own financial interests at heart, and they were happy to use public resources to produce and disseminate misleading information in order to win their multi-million dollar payday that came with passage of the referendum. JCI officials led school officials down the primrose path. Unfortunately, it appears too many top officials in the school district were more than happy to take the walk.