It’s a Question of Priorities: Edina School Spending Decisions

The Edina school district has been forced to reveal the true priorities underlying the $124.9 million referendum that it foisted on the public last May.  You may recall that the school district sold the 2015 referendum, in part, as being about school safety and critically needed school security improvements.   The district’s sales pitch focused on school safety and school security improvements precisely because the district knew that child safety sells. 

Growing_Safety.jpgThe district sent its spokespeople out throughout Edina to convince us that our aging elementary schools were falling apart and that our children’s safety was at risk at schools that were designed at a simpler, and presumably safer, time.  To address this fact, the district promised that one priority was to improve security at all of the elementary schools.  Their plan was to renovate each of the elementary schools to allow for a single point of entry, funneling all visitors past the office.  

Coming on the heels of well-publicized school shootings, the district’s rhetoric was well designed to sow the maximum level of anxiety among Edina parents and citizens.  Although only a tiny fraction of the referendum spending, just $7.9 million, was actually earmarked for security improvements, the taxpayers bought the district’s sales pitch.

We now have learned that building fancy new athletic fields are far more important to the school district than our children’s safety, belying the district’s sales jargon. 

In April, the school board rejected all of the bids for work on the elementary schools, including all of the projects designed to improve school safety and security.  The administration told the school board that “Even though the majority of elementary bids came in at or below projections, a few bids came in considerably higher than expected, resulting in the overall bid package being over budget.”  As a result, the administration recommended that the board reject all of the bids, including the majority of the bids that had come in at or below budget.  For reasons that have not been explained, the administration rejected all of the elementary bids instead of taking the logical step of approving those bids that came in at or under budget while rejecting those few that came in over budget.  We are told not to worry, however, because the administration is even now “reviewing and prioritizing scope, spending and schedule adjustments.”  One might reasonably ask why the administration did not consider such priorities before they asked us for a massive tax increase.

Having rejected the school security and improvement bids, the district is now scrambling to figure out some temporary measures to improve security.  Having spent a month “reviewing and prioritizing scope” for the security improvements, the district has now come up with what it considers to be a workable plan.  According to the district website, the district is “leaning toward an interim plan that could include piloting a buzzer security system at some elementary sites this fall, with additional security ropes to help direct visitors to the office.”  Yes, you read that correctly; after a month of “reviewing and prioritizing,” the school district has come up with a new and improved elementary security plan involving ropes.  Apparently, the district hopes that a shooter will simply follow the “security ropes” and check in at the front office.  Of course, the district is quick to point out that its rope security plan is only temporary.

generic_turf_field.jpgAt the same meeting where it rejected real school security in favor of a school security rope plan, the school board approved over $53 million in bids for the high school including nearly $10 million for the construction of athletic fields.   The construction costs for two state-of-the art athletic fields below the high school will be almost as much as all of the rejected school safety and security projects combined.  Just this past week, the contractor building the fields encountered ground water on the site and will have to perform extensive re-engineering to address this unexpected problem.  Who would have expected the contractor to encounter ground water when digging near a wetland?  Just a few weeks into the construction, the district’s lack of foresight and planning is already manifest.  The project now faces significant delays and likely significant cost overruns.

Of course, the costs of the fields at the high school do not include any costs associated with the district’s plan to simply tear out and replace the fields if the turf is found to be toxic, as expected by critics.  As reported previously, the district has chosen to install crumb rubber on all five of its fields despite serious and significant potential risks to the environment and to players using the fields.  The district plans to deal with these toxic concerns by ignoring them until the federal government orders them to tear them out.  Rushing forward with the construction of state-of-the-art athletic fields, apparently, does not require the same type of deep introspection that caused the administration to develop its clever rope security plan for the elementary schools.     

It is important that the school district figure out its priorities.  The fact that the district is apparently just fine with spending millions on sports fields that will likely have to be torn out in a year or two while ignoring child safety and security shows that the school district’s priorities are pretty far out of whack.