HJ/EDHerald Journal, Jan. 23, 2006

Judge finds possible violations by opponents of HLWW referendum; hearing to be set

By Lynda Jensen

Political materials distributed shortly before the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school building bond referendum in December are the focus of court action.

Judge Bruce H. Johnson issued a ruling Jan. 10 which moved a case forward about potentially false political material distributed by opponents of the building bond, known as the WISE (“We Insist on Sound Education”) committee.

Johnson is an administrative law judge in the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles cases of this nature.

The referendum failed by 36 votes in its effort to gain voter approval for building a new high school and remodeling other school facilities.

The judge found three possible violations out of 25 statements made by WISE, stemming from postcards and a written statement distributed by Victor Niska of Waverly, chairman of WISE, before the election.

A hearing on whether the action proceeds wasn’t scheduled as of press time, but is expected to be determined within a week.

The three alleged violations are the following:

A four-page statement dated Nov. 24 by Niska had two possible false statements:

• “I have personally been offered a bribe by SGN Architects – free tickets to the Twins game during the World Series.  What are they offering or have offered today when the administration and board members are so comfortable with SGN?”

• The second allegedly false statement was: “The construction delivery method is decided to be a general contractor, also agreed upon in a written contract.  This will take the district out of the majority of the construction details, decisions, and quality control . . .” 

The citizen group BUILD (“Building Unity in the Laker District”), stated that, contrary to WISE members’ claim, the superintendent, school board and building committee will have access and input to the project throughout the building process.

• A postcard titled “Taxes, taxes, taxes” had a possible false statement: “Like most Minnesotans, HLWW taxpayers saw their tax support of schools shift from property taxes to state income taxes a few years ago.  ”

BUILD members argues that no such “tax shift” occurred in this nor any other district.

Fact or opinion?

These findings were amidst a group of statements dismissed by the court as being political views that are protected under free speech.

Numerous statements made by the WISE committee were challenged as being false by BUILD, which brought the lawsuit in the first place.

The court made it clear that political opinions, even those that may be considered “extreme and illogical,” don’t qualify for breaking false campaign laws, which are meant to protect the public from altered factual information, to the point that the information is patently untrue.

The court also pointed out that the public is protected from such extreme inferences by a candidate’s ability to rebut remarks during the campaign process.

The following are some statements disputed by WISE and BUILD:

Statements in a campaign postcard entitled: “Statistics Too Often Can be Manipulated to Misrepresent the Bigger Picture”

Disputed statement: “Long Term Enrollment Has Been Declining.”

BUILD members maintain that this statement is false because enrollment in ISD 2687 has increased in four of the last five years and is up significantly in elementary classes.

However, the statement’s context must be considered, the judge noted.

On one side of the postcard, WISE members state that “enrollment has been moving sideways for the last eight years and has been declining over the last 17 years.”

The statement “Long Term Enrollment Has Been Declining” appears on the other side of the postcard and refers to WISE members’ claim that enrollment has been declining over the last 17 years.

Disputed statement: “We don’t have a growth/space problem.”

According to BUILD, students are being taught in converted closets, and sometimes three teachers are teaching three different groups of students in one classroom at the same time.

“Even if there is crowding in the schools, people can have differences in opinion as to whether it is a ‘problem,’” Johnson said.

Disputed statement: “Group Learning – which requires larger classrooms – is an educational fad already being rejected (due to poor academic achievement scores) in eastern states. Voters should reject the failed fad and the larger classrooms.”

BUILD members allege that these statements are false because the school district does not employ any type of “special group learning method of teaching.”

“Accordingly, even though an inference that the school building program may result in group learning appears to be baseless and illogical, it does not give rise to a violation of the law,” the judge said.

Campaign postcard entitled: “Why Must HLWW Taxpayers Fund Such Waste?”

Disputed statements: “An experienced Minnesota public schools facility manager, and also a member of the WISE committee, looked over the HLWW proposed building and remodeling plans. He found bond money (proposed to take 25 years to re-pay) will be spent to purchase: Single-ply roofs (seven-to-10 year life expectancy [LE]) even though the district has been fixing and fixing their current single-ply roofs); Sheetrock walls (10 years LE) and future mold problems; Rooftop HVAC units (eight to 12 years LE); and paver tile floors – very brittle and maintenance intensive.”

Although BUILD members concede that life expectancies for building components vary, they maintain that the roof will last longer than seven to 10 years, the Sheetrock will last more than 10 years, and the rooftop HVAC units will not require any more maintenance than other systems and will last longer than eight to 12 years.

“When single-ply roofs leak they can cause damage to the walls and building contents below. The district has been fixing, fixing, and fixing their single-ply roofs on their existing buildings and the architect is proposing to install more on the new building. If we total up what we have spent over the past 20 years on roofs in the district, I am sure that we have spent enough to have the best roof system available today and all we have is a patched-up mess.”

BUILD members explain that the existing roofs and buildings date back to 1915 and that no major remodeling renovation has been done since.

Disputed statement: “The architect receives 6-1/2 to 7 percent of construction/remodeling costs, equaling $1.4 million. A Home Depot sales representative told us that after “Katrina,” building materials prices went up but are now down to near pre-Katrina levels. Yet the same architect advised a $960,000 increase in building costs due to ‘Katrina.’

“We noticed the architect doesn’t list the k-12 school building in Lakeview ISD Cottonwood as a reference. Voters should e-mail or write us for a Lakewood reference before approving this proposal and, as a result, engaging their same architect.”

BUILD members argue first that this discussion about the project’s architect implies the Lakeview/Cottonwood ISD was not satisfied with the architect’s work.

This is false, BUILD members said, and attached a letter to the court from the Lakeview/Cottonwood school district, indicating that it was very satisfied with the work of this architectural firm.

It was also pointed out that most of the materials available at Home Depot are not commercial grade and would be unusable for this project.

Campaign postcard entitled “Taxes, Taxes, Taxes”

“ . . . if the proposed tax levy of $0.28 per $100 tax capacity were on the books last year, the taxes on a typical $100,000 home in the HLWW district would have increased 225 percent to $358.44, placing us 140th out of 349 Minnesota district’s property tax levies. We are a small rural district to be paying such a high rate.”

Complainants state that of all the districts in the area that have done building projects in the last five to seven years, this project is the most meager.

In addition, BUILD members point out that any school that does a building project moves up in property tax levy ranking and currently HLWW has no building bonds (debt) outstanding.

Four-page statement by Victor Niska dated Nov. 24, 2005

Disputed statement: “The best way to remember to vote is to vote absentee ballot. Do it today! Inquire at the district offices in Howard Lake or Remember to VOTE “NO” Dec. 13th, 2005.”

BUILD members noted that you can’t vote by absentee ballot based on whether you might forget to vote.

Disputed statement: “Bad economy – fixed income – high food, high gas, and high medical costs – what’s ahead? Not a good time for frivolous spending!”

BUILD members pointed out that schools have been built during the depression.

For a full transcript of the court documents, go to www.oah.state.mn.us/aljBase/638517049.primafacie.ord.htm.

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