Introducing the “underbelly” of school tax levy, the consultant

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I was quite interested in a story I read in the Highland Villager about the St Paul School District paying nearly $30,000 to Springsted Incorporated for consultation services on this fall’s District tax levy referendum. Springsted describes itself as “a public sector advisor with services spanning every stage of your community’s life cycle.” Or as some members of the public may perceive in this case as a “political consultant.” Should public $$$ go towards consultations on political questions by having a survey/poll done for the St Paul School District?

I decided to seek out information that would help me understand this new phenom I had not seen before. By searching the “NewsBank” I ran across several mentions of Springsted from consulting with Ramsey County on financing the Arden Hills site to serving as an administrator for a “borrowing pool sponsored by the Minnesota School Boards Association.” The pool by the way in 2010 borrowed to school districts more than $300 million.

There was a mention where the Rochester School District was thinking of hiring Springsted for $20,000 to conduct a survey of Rochester residents similar to St Paul did but chose not to do it and had a “community committee” instead. This was in 2010. On the other hand, Springsted was used as consultant on the bond issue with survey and all the trimmings for Forest Lake Area Schools in 2010.

Every company has to make money and provide services in order to survive and be successful, no problem with that. But should public $$$ go to a company to “consult” and survey for a political question that the public votes on? It does not meet my “smell” test and it may be the case with other members of the public also.

I made a Minnesota Government Data Practices request to the St Paul School District for the survey questions, the contract with Springsted, and the breakdown of the survey. I also asked for all government data related to communication between Springsted Inc and the Superintendent of Schools on this matter. I was told, “There was no communication between the Superintendent and Springsted regarding the survey.”

The contract between Springsted Incorporated and the St Paul School District was written by the consultant themselves. The basic reason for the the services of Springsted as per the Summary of Need in the contract:

“The St Paul Public Schools is conducting an operating referendum in November 2012 and desires consultation and planning assistance from Springsted.”

The $29,460 that the District is paying for also includes “post-survey planning consultation.”

As I stated in the beginning of this post it was the first time I saw public monies going to consultants to do a survey on a political question. Public $$$ are used for surveys by public entities for marketing and satisfaction feedback all the time, but should public dollars be used to support or not support a rationale for why elected school board members should put on the ballot a tax levy referendum.

I thought elected officials particularly school board members decide such issues on the basis of their conscience and feedback from the community they represent, not based on a taxpayer funded consultant and survey.