District admits flaw in high bid for Central, Madison
by NATHANIEL NELSON and Sarah Squires
After initial hesitation and a swell of parent complaints, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board unanimously voted to approve a new security system for four of its least-secured schools during the board meeting on Thursday. At the last meeting, the board hesitated to insert board member Allison Quam’s proposal to add an Aiphone buzzer system to two elementary schools into its state-funded facility requests or next year’s budget, but this week administrators returned with a proposal to add the system to four schools — at less than half the initial quoted price. Additionally, the school sale issue returned to the floor after it was discovered that the winning bids for Madison and Central had strayed from the district’s bidding requirements. And, superintendent Rich Dahman received a favorable performance evaluation from the board, though it was noted that he was too “verbose” in his communications.
In the July 19 meeting, Quam proposed adding Aiphone buzzer systems to W-K and Goodview at Wold Architect and Engineer’s estimated cost of around $26,000 to the list of state-funded maintenance projects. After discussion among the board and Dahman, the motion failed to pass and instead, the board asked administrators to bring options to the table for the next board meeting.
Not adding the project to the list of state-funded maintenance projects at the July meeting meant the district missed an August 1 deadline to fund the project in that way. Other options included waiting to see whether the November $9.4-million referendum passes — which includes security upgrades — or waiting to see if the district could win security grant funds from the Minnesota Department of Education; however, both those options would mean that secured entrance upgrades would have to wait and buildings entrances would not be secured in time for the coming school year. Quam also asked whether the entrances could simply be locked in the interim, with a phone number posted for guests to be granted access to the schools.
But last week, Dahman said he had worked with the local firm Digicom, and received a quote of $19,000 that would fund the buzzer system entrances for all four elementary schools. The board unanimously approved that plan.
According to Dahman, the system involves a camera, a display and a buzzer which would allow staff to watch the doors at all times. If someone were to approach and attempt to enter, staff would be able to see who they were and ask them questions to identify them. Then they would be able to remotely unlock the door.
“It’s not foolproof, but a foolproof system doesn’t exist,” Dahman said, adding that it would be a large step in the right direction.
Quam asked for an explanation about why the large discrepancy existed between the Wold quote and that from Digicom, and a Wold representative explained they had expected to replace door hardware, which would have raised the price. Digicom was able to examine the doors in-person and determine they would not have to be replaced to install the system.
Dahman said that Digicom was available to install the new systems before school begins, but that two weeks of staff training could mean the system would not be up until after school is in session. “It will be put in as soon as possible,” Dahman said. “I’d be shocked if it wasn’t in place by the end of September.”
Quam pressed the issue, asking what the district’s plan would be while staff are being trained to operate the buzzer system doors. Dahman said the schools would operate under the same system that has been used for the past 80 years.
Before the vote to install the new system, Tina Burmeister spoke to the board during the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting about the security issue, chastising district leaders for not having made a decision. She said she had been asking Dahman since February how the entrances to the elementary buildings would be secured for the coming school year. “There’s no school within 50 miles that has unlocked doors,” Burmeister said. “When talking to parents and staff of other school districts they were in shock and disbelief that our schools are not secured.”
Burmeister said communication with Dahman on the issue slowed and eventually stopped completely. Dahman later apologized for not responding more quickly to her concerns.
Dahman also said he was misinterpreted over statements he made at the July meeting, when he said locked doors at elementary buildings would cause frustration from community members who may have to wait four or five minutes in the cold to be let into the buildings. During that meeting, he stated: “I want to make sure we’re not underselling how the inconvenience of standing outside in the cold and rain and hitting a buzzer, how some people are going to react to that, and I want you to make sure that we’re ready for the fact that we’ll have a lot of people who will be very upset that they’re losing the ability to walk into their school and walk into the office and take care of their business and leave, and that they have to wait outside before they do that. I know that many people will understand the reason for it, but I think that we should be prepared for the idea that there will be a large number of people who will be upset with that and find it to be an unwelcoming atmosphere, and weigh the risk of something happening versus the inconvenience in different ways than other people.”
High bid strayed from district terms
Facilities hit the fan again on Thursday night, when board members learned that the high bid from Building Value Partners, LLC, (BVP), had strayed from the call for bids parameters set forth by the district when it offered the buildings for sale, which Dahman said was a result of a “clerical error” in his office. The board, however, elected not to interrupt the sale proceedings, which are expected to take several more weeks as the buildings are slated for a contingent rezone request with the city of Winona.
Last month, board members voted to sell Central and Madison schools to BVP for $131,000 and $171,000, respectively. While they lamented the offers as low for the schools, which are assessed for more than $2 million each, they ultimately rejected a last-minute offer from Andrew Brenner — who loudly proclaimed he would pay twice BVP’s offer for Central and stated he had missed out on the bidding process that was not widely advertised. While Quam voted against all the school sales and board member Tina Lehnertz voted against the sale of Rollingstone, the rest of the board indicated they did not want to stray from the bidding process, even if it might mean more money for the district. “I’d hate to pull the rug out from somebody who participated in the process the way it was put forward,” stated board member Steve Schild at the July meeting.
However, last week board members learned that that process had been flawed. Dahman acknowledged that one of the three-page request for bids documents had been erroneously left out of the file sent to Ben Schaub of BVP. However, he stated that the items listed in that portion of the bid requirements had been later negotiated with Schaub within the pending sales agreement.
During the public comment period, Karl Sonneman, who is running for an at-large position on the School Board and is a member of the Save Our Schools (SOS) Committee that is suing the district over the closure of Madison and Rollingstone Schools, objected to the sale. He called the missing bid requirements “enormous,” and accused the board of being unfair with the process it upheld. “You set it up as a bid, described it as such, set forth conditions and terms that you wanted in the bid, and then you ignored them. Building Value Partners has a nonconforming bid,” he stated.
Schaub himself admitted there were “some minor irregularities in that process,” but asked that the board act in good faith toward him in the sales. “I don’t think [school closure and sale] was an easy decision for any of you to make,” he said, but “now it’s time to move on and focus on providing the best possible education to the district’s children given these new realities.”
John Howard also spoke during the public comment period at the meeting, asking that the board re-do the bidding process in light of the mistakes. “Maybe it doesn’t change anything, but still be thorough in that process and abide by that process,” he asked.
It is unclear whether the district has closed on the sale of Rollingstone school to its high bidder, MC Properties, which offered $80,000 for the structure and did not stray from the bidding requirements offered by the district. However, both Madison and Rollingstone school closures are being challenged by the SOS group at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which agreed to hear the case. SOS also challenged the sale of the schools prior to the request for bids. The Court of Appeals rejected the sale challenge, stating that SOS should have first asked the district itself to delay the sale of the buildings, and that the district had not formally entered into sale proceedings at the time the challenge was filed.
But on Thursday, SOS member Gretchen Michlitsch did just that. During the public comment period, she formally requested that the district stay — delay — the sale of the schools while the court case proceeds, “because if the court rules in our favor, the school district would need to have the school buildings for the court’s decision to have impact — for justice to be meaningful and for the public good to be served,” she said.
Quam made a motion to stay the sale of the schools, but that motion died because no other board member offered a second.
Dahman receives favorable performance review
by SARAH SQUIRES
The WAPS Board also provided a summary of WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman’s performance evaluation, as required by Minnesota law. Last month the board met in closed session to discuss the review, and a statement was read on Thursday by board chair Ben Baratto that he and vice chair Tina Lehnertz drafted summarizing the results of the evaluation.
The board used what is called “360 Evaluation” to conduct Dahman’s review, which includes input from board members, administrators and principals. According to Baratto, Dahman scored highest in the areas of “instilling trust” and “displaying commitment.” Dahman was evaluated in 18 areas, and in all areas his performance was measured as “favorable.”
“Superintendent Dahman came into District 861 to promote a referendum which he did not design,” Baratto stated. “With information already in place, he did an admirable job promoting the referendum.” Baratto also said Dahman performed “admirably” when it came to reducing the district’s footprint, adding that previous boards and superintendents had discussed the controversial topic for years without success. “To his credit, superintendent Dahman was able to accomplish it this year,” read Baratto.
Dahman comes to meetings prepared with information and keeps the board well informed, continued the chair, adding that Dahman has “high expectations for the district and has established good relations with direct reports.”
Baratto said Dahman communicates effectively and is willing to correct misinformation, but added: “however, he tends to get too verbose in his explanations, both in written and verbal form. He is open to listening to others, but tends to interrupt before the person or persons have finished speaking.”
Baratto concluded, “Superintendent Dahman has not had time to be educationally and administratively creative this past year. If we are to make Winona a great educational district, he and the board will have to begin in the near future to communicate a vision and a plan on how this can be achieved.”
Following Baratto’s reading of the summary, board member Steve Schild said he disagreed with the term “verbose,” stating he felt it was a “subjective term” that stemmed from the comments of one board member. “We take that into consideration,” replied Baratto, “but that’s what the vice chair and I came up with.”