ST. PAUL — When the Minnesota Department of Education endorses local school construction projects, it could do a better job of explaining its rationale to voters, the legislative auditor said in a report Thursday, Nov. 7.

State law generally requires school districts to submit their construction plans to the state for a formal “review and comment,” which then gets discussed at a public school board meeting. The process is supposed to help voters weigh the merits of a project before deciding whether to back their district’s request to borrow money for it.

The legislative auditor — the state’s official nonpartisan watchdog — said the Department of Education has been doing what the law requires, but the information they provide isn’t all that helpful.

Over a three-year period, the department gave projects a “positive” finding 97 out of 98 times — allowing districts access to special state aid if they have low property values, and setting the bar for voter approval at 50 percent instead of 60 percent.

But those endorsements typically feature language provided by the districts, not an original analysis by the department.

“If it is unclear why the department determined that a project is (or is not) advisable, there may be little basis for discussion in a public meeting, and the department’s ratings may not help inform school district residents,” the report reads.

The auditor recommended a change in statute requiring the department to explain its ratings for each project.

In response, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker agreed that a more detailed explanation would be “helpful” but said it would “require a significant amount of additional staff time.” She asked that lawmakers find money to pay for the improved process.

Public comment

The auditor also recommended lawmakers change the law to require school districts to solicit public comment on its construction projects before the Department of Education weighs in.

Since 2017, the state has been required to include public comment in its reports. However, no one is required to proactively seek out those comments, and the auditor found that just four of 35 recent reports included input from the public.

Ricker isn’t waiting for legislation to respond to that recommendation. She said the department will update its instructions to encourage school districts to inform residents of their right to provide input.

The legislative auditor’s review originated with a May complaint brought by residents of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school districts, who opposed plans for a joint high school and two elementary schools. Ricker gave the projects a positive rating in April, and voters in both districts gave their approval three weeks later.

St. Paul and three other school districts with special taxing authority don’t have to submit to the review and comment process when they borrow for construction projects.