Wednesday, May 30, 2012

School district should explain what went wrong

The Blaine County School District board of trustees owes the community an explanation about what led to the dueling lawsuits filed between the district and Seattle Engineering firm McKinstry Essention over projects costing $26 million.

These are more than garden-variety lawsuits over billing squabbles because of how the projects, which included geothermal heating and air conditioning retrofits on eight schools and other facilities, were funded.

In 2009, just a year after the near-collapse of the nation's financial system, Blaine County voters approved a whopping $59.8 million plant facilities levy that should have been a win-win for local workers and schools. Workers stood to gain employment opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have had in the recession that had overwhelmed the construction trades. The district stood not only to get its school buildings improved, but to avoid being forced to shift money from teachers' salaries and education programs in order to afford repairs.

Many taxpayers cast counterintuitive votes to invest in the local economy and to keep the schools strong instead of hunkering down and pinching pennies until the storm of the recession passed. They dug deep to do the right thing.

Now, with the district embroiled in what threatens to be an expensive legal brawl, taxpayers are wondering if they really did do the right thing. Filed after mediation between the district and the engineering firm failed, the lawsuits turned win-win into certain win-lose.

What happened?

In July 2011, representatives of the district and McKinstry were all smiles and handshakes in a meeting where they reported on the number of local subcontractors that had worked on the projects. In a December 2011 meeting when subcontractors worried aloud about getting paid, the district assured them that all was well.

But five months later, the district is demanding that McKinstry give back the $18 million spent to date. McKinstry wants the district to pay it $7 million more for its work. And what does the contract between them say and what does it mean? That's what the lawyers will do battle over.

All these matters are details, albeit expensive ones. The real question is how did it come to this?

The district downplayed its lawsuit when it characterized the dispute as one over a "discrepancy"—a gross understatement to say the least.

The public deserves an explanation that's outside of the legal documents, outside of lawyers' argument and beyond any backroom settlement of the cases about what went wrong. Without it, the trust that taxpayers placed in the district may become damaged beyond repair.

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