Tip #1: If you want the truth, do your own homework.
I had a very interesting conversation with Superintendent Dr. Brian Harris tonight. He was hosting an informational meeting on the Jefferson Preschool project tonight which I attended.
After the (convincing) presentation regarding the need for the Jefferson project to move forward, the floor was opened for questions and comments. I went first.
I took the opportunity to express my support for the Jefferson project itself, but my disappointment with how hard it is to trust CUSD200, given all the misleading and false information they disseminate.
Dr. Harris got very agitated when the word "false" left my lips and immediately pressed me for an example of what I was talking about. So I explained to him that I was referring to what you see below, taken directly from the CUSD 200 website.
Q: In 2006, the estimated cost to renovate was $13.5 million. Why, in 2013, is it $17.6 million?
A: In 2006, design work was not completed for Jefferson. It was removed from consideration and the focus was on Hubble. The 2013 costs increased because:
- The increase in the detail of the design has provided the ability for a more accurate estimate.
- Significant issues based on "mistakes" other districts have made in their recently-built early childhood centers are being addressed.
- The cost of materials has increased in seven years.
When I described the question, Dr. Harris assured me he was intimately acquainted with the question and the three answers. “What was false?” he demanded.
“For starters,” I began, “the estimate was dated 2007, and not 2006. But even more importantly, the bidding was for Year 2008.”
After a bit of back and forth, it became clear that Dr. Harris is familiar with the concept of inflation and its role in pricing of contracts and bids and the like. All very encouraging.
But he still looked confused. “What's your concern?" he asked.
I had led Dr. Harris to water, but he was obviously in no mood to drink.
“Look," I said, "let’s cut to the chase. Your website suggests that the $13.5M price tag was for 2006, but the bid is in 2008 dollars. This is your chart.”
I then showed him Exhibit A (see attachments). Exhibit A comes from the proposal presented to CUSD about 6 years ago. It shows the inflation assumptions that the architects built into their “2008 bidding” project estimate - the $13.5M number.
Dr. Harris still looked puzzled.
I then showed Dr. Harris Exhibit B. Exhibit B shows what actually happened over the past 5 years. Prices did rise in 2007 and 2008. But then as we all know the world hit the skids and construction prices plummeted in 2009. To this day construction costs still had not yet returned to their 2008 levels.
Dr. Harris still looked puzzled.
I then stated the obvious: “Your website states that one of the reasons why the price rose was that the cost of materials has increased. That’s false. The truth is, the $13.5M price is the high-water mark price and since then construction costs have declined markedly.
After a bit more back and forth Dr. Harris eventually conceded that what I was saying was entirely true and that he’d do his best to tidy up the website with these corrections.
“Dr. Harris," I then said, "it’s great that you’re going to fix the information on the website, but what concerns me most is that you put false information there in the first place.”
This time around Dr. Harris did not jump on me for using the word false.
Here's why. The below chart shows “bid prices” for the exact same project done the exact same way. The only thing being adjusted in this chart is the construction costs over time, as tracked by the Turner Construction Cost Index that CUSD 200 architects use.
|Year||Estimated Cost in 2007||Actual Cost||Comment|
|2008||$13.5M||$13.5M||CUSD200 called this a 2006 price|
|2010||no estimate provided||$11.9M|
|2011||no estimate provided||$12.1M|
|2012||no estimate provided||$12.5M||This is essentially "today's price"|
In essence, the above chart shows that the same project done today would cost LESS, not more, than it would have in 2008. If this were eBay, the 2012 "buy it now" price is $12.5M.
Rosemary Swanson, currently serving as President of the CUSD 200 board, was present at the meeting. She seemed strangely unconcerned with this error, the fact that it was large, or that it was on the CUSD 200 website. She said something to the effect that it was all fine and that everyone was doing their best to explain things well.
Tip #2: If CUSD200 is hiding something, see if you can figure out what it is.
Explain things well? The last justification for the price increase is patently false, and the other two justifications are comically lacking in detail.
"Dr. Harris," I said, "why didn't you just tell taxpayers the truth? None of your answers explain that the biggest reason for this price increase is the simple fact that you have increased the project size by more 25%. You want to build a bigger building. Why didn't you just tell the taxpayers that?"
Dr. Harris then tried to fudge. I didn't budge. "NO. Your website doesn't even mention the word 'space' in the answer. There is nothing there to tell the reader that the price has risen because the project got much bigger. Nothing."
Dr. Harris then assured me that they'd fix that in the website too.
Tip #3: When you catch CUSD200 hiding something, they usually promise to stop hiding it.
But of course by that time the false information is already out, and few people will get the corrected story, if indeed it is corrected.
So the conversation moved on and other people asked questions, but as the evening wound down I realized I still didn’t have Dr. Harris’ answer… did they put the false information there in the website intentionally, or did they simply not know what they were doing?
So I asked Dr. Harris near the end of the session, "Dr. Harris, did you know that the website contained false information?"
Dr. Harris replied, "Well at first I didn't know what you were talking about, but now I understand what you were saying."
"No, Dr. Harris, that is not my question", I chided him. "I'm not asking you if you now understand what I pointed out tonight. I am asking you if you were, or were not, aware that your website is providing false information."
As soon as I said this, the room got a bit noisy, as not only Dr. Harris but also several CUSD200 board members who were in attendance voiced disgust at the question I was asking.
Rosemary Swanson turned around, looked me in the eye, and said (and I quote), "That is one of those 'Have you stopped beating your wife' questions. There is no need for him to answer it."
"Fine," I said to Dr. Harris, "I understand that you do not want to answer the question."
So, fellow taxpayers, there you have it.
Neither the President of the Board nor the District Superintendent felt that (a) a $1.7 million error is a material error, or that (b) Dr. Harris needs to explain to me or to anyone else whether the "mistake" was due to fraudulence or sheer incompetence.
Some readers (and perhaps some CUSD administrators) will wonder where I got the number $1.7 million.
CUSD200 explained their price increase with these words: "The cost of materials has increased in seven years."
Yes, prices have increased since 2006. But if we were to back out the 2006 price for that same project, it would be $11.8 million. I repeat... the 2006 price for the exact same project was $11.8 million. Think of it as inflation in reverse.
The difference between $13.5 million and $11.8 million is $1.7 million, friends.
So if CUSD wishes to talk about price increases since 2006, they have to use the 2006 price.
That means they have to explain NOT the difference between $13.5M and $17.6M, which is about $4.1M.
Rather, they must now explain the difference between $11.8M and $17.6M.
That's $5.8 million. The gap just grew by $1.7M.
So now CUSD 200 has an additional $1.7 million to explain.
Do you think they will? Stay tuned!
In Part II (my next blog, if I get to it) I'll tell you something else we discussed at tonight's meeting. It has to do with a very cool thing: CUSD is going to give everyone a free sofa. New. No charge.
Anybody want to hear that story?