Local Views: ‘We deserve the best possible value for the dollar, not cronyism’

Who is 834VOICE?

According to a letter published in the Stillwater Gazette Aug. 12 by Mr. Blondin, we’re a “dark money group funded by hidden political agents.”

Mr. Blondin asked, “who are the special interests out to harm public education in our community by funding 834VOICE?”

He also attacked my credibility.

These attacks are nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to divert attention away from district wrong-doing. This same strategy is being used by the District’s legal team instead of addressing serious allegations.

I submitted this column to the Gazette requesting a fair opportunity to defend myself and 834VOICE. They refused to allow anything more than a brief response.

834VOICE is an organization of local residents who feel defrauded by the district after  supporting the latest bond referendum, and decided to ask questions about the process.

834VOICE represents parents and long-time residents of this district fed up with dishonest and unethical behavior. We’re a non-profit, 501(c) 4 organization, incorporated with the State. We’ve had individuals fulfilling the roles of key officer positions, as required by law, but this is an informal, volunteer organization.

This was clear in my deposition where I stated we have no “formal” officers. I never stated we have no officers. We are all juggling our jobs with parenthood and trying to conduct this lawsuit. Hundreds of community members have contributed their time, money, and volunteer effort to restore honesty, transparency and ethical decision making to our school district.

There is no other hidden purpose.

This has been a financial burden for everyone involved. To claim we are funded by some secret anti-education or luxury home-building group is preposterous. Why are many of us spending countless hours acting as amateur paralegals to help conduct this case? Why do we have well-publicized garage sales, silent auctions, flea market booths and numerous other fundraisers?

There is no dark money, no hidden benefactor, no Illuminati, or whatever conspiracy Mr. Blondin’s fervid imagination can conjure up.

I’ll be the first to admit we’ve made mistakes. We’ve underestimated how difficult this would be. But, let’s be clear — we are not publicly elected officials overseeing a budget of over a $100 million dollars. When someone demands transparency from an organization like 834VOICE, but doesn’t demand the same from their own school district, they are trying to divert attention away from district wrongdoing.

834VOICE has discovered compelling evidence that our school district lied repeatedly to the public. They ignored their own policies and State law covering-up conflicts of interest involving former board member Kathy Buchholz and current Executive Director of Finance Kristen Hoheisel.

All of this evidence comes from the District’s own documents through deposition and email discovery:

From September to early December 2015, secret, small group meetings were purposely held to avoid public knowledge of obviously sensitive information. When board members claimed December 17, 2015 was the first time they heard about closing schools that was not truthful. Board member Pearson even testified that Chairman Hoeppner and board member O’Loughlin expressed support for closing schools well before voting on March 3, 2016.

Kathy Buchholz served on the school board for about 10 years. Her husband is a principal vice president with BWBR, the architecture firm chosen for the $97.5 million bond projects approved May 2015.

BWBR made around $5 million from this work. Mr. Buchholz’s deposition testimony confirmed he profited from BWBR’s contract even though he didn’t work directly on the project. Ms. Buchholz never disclosed she would financially benefit from this contract. It is prohibited by law for a public official to profit from work contracted with a spouse. Ms. Buchholz admitted there is no separation of income in the family.

Board members admitted not following their own board policy or State statute with regard to Ms. Buchholz.

This issue was addressed by the Office of the State Auditor (OSA) in an April 1, 2016 letter.  The OSA identified the potential conflicted relationship, described the affidavit and resolution process required by law, and recommended the district investigate. District leadership ignored the Auditor’s recommendations.

Amazingly, the district used this letter on their website to falsely claim the State Auditor found no conflicts of interest. Once the Auditor was made aware of this, the district was forced to take this down.

Executive Director of Finance, Kristen Hoheisel, has also been accused of violating conflict of interest laws. She profited from district contracts through her husband’s financial advisory firm, R.W. Baird. Baird made $115,000 from bond related work.

In the Sartell school district, financial advisors, PMA, made about $10,000 for a similar sized bond. Ms. Hoheisel was the sole authorizer of this $115,000 wired amount at the time of the bond closing. No one from the District can provide documentation showing how this fee was calculated.

Board members testified that Ms. Hoheisel can bind the district to contracts up to $100,000 without board approval; however, they told the State Auditor’s Office she has no decision making ability. Ms. Hoheisel’s claim that this $115,000 amount was specified in the February 2015 Review and Comment proposal isn’t backed up by the actual contract signed with Baird in July 2015 where the fee was not specified.

No board member testified to approving this amount, knowledge of the exact fee, or why the fee was unspecified in the contract.

Few would disagree that public business should be transacted in an honest, transparent, and ethical manner.

Clear evidence shows this didn’t happen.

Instead of accountability, the district’s response has been to attack those asking legitimate questions. We should be able to trust board members and administrators have taken appropriate safeguards to ensure decisions are made in the best interests of our children, not those who stand to profit. This trust has been severely damaged.

We deserve the best possible value for the dollar, not cronyism.

Without trust, how does this district pass another levy or bond? Re-establishing trust could start with accountability, but unfortunately, the district is doing everything they can to avoid answering to the community.

This strategy may work in court, but in the long run, we all lose.