Justin Berry came to the Grand Forks Hampton Inn on April 7 curious what, exactly, was about to happen.
What he found was an evening meeting organized by SitelogIQ, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. Word had spread from emails to some lower-level school committee members, but many of the school district’s top leaders say now they had no idea it was happening.
Berry remembers about two dozen local folks had shown up, all treated to a meeting to organize a “Vote Yes” committee — which, he said, seemed clearly aimed at backing the school district’s referendum, worth millions of dollars in bonds and mill increases, set for June.
But as the meeting wore on, Berry was troubled. SitelogIQ is the same consulting firm that Grand Forks Public Schools had used to plan the referendum, helping weigh the district’s needs and the community’s interest in supporting them. Now that firm seemed like it was getting involved in a campaign.
For Berry, the situation didn’t add up. It’s not legal for school resources to be spent on political advocacy. So why did these consultants travel so far to be at the Hampton Inn on April 7? Surely not out of the goodness of their hearts, he thought.
What, exactly, was happening?
Berry learned of the meeting after receiving a forwarded email from SitelogIQ, which organized the meeting. The email, which Berry later shared with the Herald, is addressed to several members of that lower-level school committee preparing for the referendum, and shows the consulting group sometimes treading carefully — but still involved in pressing for a “yes” vote.
“SitelogIQ is going to host an informational meeting for all of you – and anyone else you would like to invite from the community – and assist in the organizing of a Vote YES effort for the referendum,” a SitelogIQ consultant wrote. “Remember, the school district is legally obligated to provide information about the referendum but can NOT advocate for passing the referendum.”
SitelogIQ this week did not fulfill the Herald’s multiple requests for comment.
"Is it ethical for a consultant, being paid for by the district, to then organize and help a Vote Yes campaign that would benefit the district?" Berry said during an interview with the Herald.
Questions arrive for the district just months before a June 22 referendum, when voters will weigh in on a 10-mill increase in the district’s building fund and $86 million in bonding. Voters’ support would mean a flood of new money to support the district’s building maintenance, plus a new consolidated K-8 school and paying for demolitions, renovations and improvements elsewhere.
Berry, a former School Board candidate, has been critical of the school district as it’s moved toward those changes. In recent years, he’s been skeptical of district plans to close north-end schools, which he and his wife worried would reshape neighborhoods for the worse. Now he’s wondering what precisely happened on April 7.
Top administrators and board leaders say they didn’t know about the April 7 meeting at the Hampton before it happened. School Board member Cynthia Shabb attended, but said she only learned about it hours beforehand and knew little about it when she arrived. She said she’d barely glanced at the email chain she saw.
The result of the meeting has been a public relations headache for the district. Its existence was first reported by Forum Communications Company columnist Rob Port, who questioned what he called a “skeezy use” of a consultant that looked like it was working both ends of the street — helping the school district draw up the referendum, and perhaps trying to steer voters’ approval into a construction contract.
School leaders have a different version of events. A spokesperson said SitelogIQ won’t be the architect or construction manager on work approved by the referendum. The district is required to seek low bids, and the law requires them to prioritize local companies.
Superintendent Terry Brenner, in a Wednesday interview with the Herald, said he wouldn’t speculate why SitelogIQ held the meeting and said he wasn’t told that a meeting was being held.
“Nobody from the school district (was) aware of that meeting. I can confidently say that about the four people sitting around this table,” Brenner said, referring to himself and three other administration officials on a conference call with the Herald. “We did not know that meeting was scheduled. We did not know that there was going to be any interaction between SitelogIQ and some people who are interested in forming a ‘Vote Yes’ campaign. And that’s about all we can say at this point.”
School Board President Amber Flynn said she believes the consultant may have been trying to leave a good impression with the district — going above and beyond in its services — which might boost the company’s references as it pursues bids with other clients.
“My personal opinion is that if SitelogIQ felt as though they were being helpful — because they had already established a relationship with these (committee) members who are interested in forming a ‘yes’ campaign — then certainly, their level of service would aid (their) reputation when they go and bid other contracts at other schools and list off our task force members as references,” she said.
She added, though, that there appeared to be a misunderstanding at the core of SitelogIQ’s decision to host that meeting and especially to hold a “Vote Yes” meeting. And the blame, she said, lies with the consultant.
SitelogIQ has two contracts with the district — one that came last year, and covered the consulting group’s help as the district put together its referendum proposal. That contract is worth about $30,000 and Brenner said he believes that contract “has concluded” (a school spokesperson said that SitelogIQ has not yet billed the district).
Brenner said there’s also a second, forthcoming contract that the district is expected to enter soon with SitelogIQ, on an energy savings contract. That contract is mainly tied to finding energy efficiencies within the district.
Speaking Wednesday, Brenner said there was no active contract. But district leaders explained that the company had continued doing work since then.
For example, SitelogIQ is helping facilitate “predesign” committee meetings for the Grand Forks K-8 building, which is proposed in the referendum, as well as a “bonding committee,” which is studying how much money should actually be borrowed post-referendum, should voters grant permission for a maximum amount.
“They’re not under, necessarily, a contract. … I would say that we have a verbal agreement that part of this work would be tied to the energy savings project,” Brenner said. “But we’re going to re-evaluate that based on public perception. We think our work is above-board, but we certainly understand how that can be perceived.”
That “verbal agreement” kept SitelogIQ doing work that the district had long expected might be part of the referendum process. A school district official pointed back to a request for consultants’ proposals that sought out that kind of work.
But by Thursday, Brenner said in an emailed statement the district was in talks with SitelogIQ “on a contract for the two committees presently engaged.”
That request for proposals — which were due back to the district back in 2019 — offers some clues on why SitelogIQ might have held the meeting. The request document says the scope of work includes “strategic planning as it relates to referendums,” which could require “engaging the Grand Forks community.” SitelogIQ’s response, back in late 2019, shows that marketing and a “Vote Yes” item could be part of their services.
But SitelogIQ, after initially responding to the Herald’s requests for comment — promising remarks soon — ultimately did not provide any by the Herald’s print deadline Friday.
As weeks wear on, the school district is looking to turn the conversation back toward the referendum itself. The vote is crucially important for the district as it looks to solve a backlog of deferred maintenance worth tens of millions of dollars and plan for its financial future.
Shabb, the school board member, said she’s concerned about the timing of the recent news of the SitelogIQ meeting, which she hopes won’t color the public’s approach to the referendum.
“I just worry about more negativity about the district,” she said.