Minnesota School District Accused of Conflicts of Interest and “Significant Wrongdoing”

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Another lawsuit has been filed against Stillwater School District ISD 834.  The group, 834 Voice, is claiming that ISD 834 leadership violated Open Meeting and Minnesota Data Practice Act laws, and failed to disclose conflicts of interest with regard to the $97.5 million bond passed in May 0f 2015.

The parent/community group “834 Voice” published the following statement on the group’s Facebook page on April 13:

We are concerned that our school district has committed significant wrongdoing.
We are alarmed by egregious conflicts of interest committed by a board member, and our Director of Finance…We are also alarmed that our district has violated State open meetings laws. Conducting official business in secret by meeting in small groups, or through email, is an attempt to prevent transparency…On numerous occasions, we have requested the release of public records as is our right according the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The District has released only a small fraction of that request…
Perhaps most alarming, is the fact that the district deceived the public in the latest bond referendum and levy request. They solicited votes for tax dollars, promising to benefit all district schools. After voters approved the referendum, they decided to close three schools without voter or MDE consent…For years, our school district has had an excellent reputation. This reputation has been soiled by leaders who act as though they are above the law, and accountable only to themselves and their own interests. We hope to move our community forward by making integrity, honesty, and transparency an integral part of local government.

The claims of deception and conflicts of interest stem from the connections of the District Finance Director and a school board member to the finance company and architecture firm involved in the $97.5 million bond passed by voters last spring (2015).  KSTP reported on April 13, 2016:

The potential conflict involves Kristen Hoheisel, the district’s director of finance. She is married to Michael Hoheisel, a managing director at Robert W. Baird, an employee-owned and operated financial firm in Minneapolis that serves as the district’s financial adviser.

Michael Hoheisel helped underwrite the $97.5 million bond referendum that voters passed last May so the district could build an elementary school and improve all the schools in the district, according to documents and interviews.

After the referendum passed, Kristen Hoheisel formally recommended that the school board issue the bonds through the Baird firm.

The Hoheisels also presented at a school board meeting last July, but the district never formally disclosed the couple’s relationship or their “potential financial interests” in the bond referendum.  Both the district and the finance company, Robert W. Baird, deny any wrongdoing, saying that the issue has been reviewed on two occasions by the Minnesota State Auditor and that no statutory conflict of interest was found.

Furthermore, ISD 834 School Board Member, Kathy Buchholz, is married to Brian Buchholz, who is a vice president at the architectural firm BWBR.   According to the 834 Voice lawsuit, the district entered a $5 million no-bid contract with BWBR.  Kathy Buchholz recused herself from voting on the choice to hire BWBR and was not part of the team to choose architecture firms.

The Stillwater school district has been embroiled in controversy since late 2015 when it was announced that three district elementary schools would be closed as part of district Superintendent Denise Pontrelli’s BOLD plan.

The Pioneer Press is reporting that ISD 834 has claimed “…accusations of conflicts of interest ‘part of a political agenda’” in an email sent to Stillwater Schools parents.

 

 

Check back with Alpha News for updates to this issue.

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Andrea Mayer-Bruestle, a life-long Midwesterner, has been writing/blogging since 2008​. She also serves as the chair of South Washington Citizens for Progress; a committee formed to hold South Washington County School District ISD 833 accountable to taxpayers. She created MNHockeyMama blog, which captured national media attention in 2013. Andrea has made appearances on conservative talk radio shows, and political gatherings - Tea Party and local BPOU. Her knowledge and research skills have helped guide legislators and political activists across the state.