Sep. 23—MITCHELL — A Minnesota engineer who is not licensed to practice in South Dakota and had learned about Mitchell's plan to build a new high school through second-hand information sought to poke holes in the project on Thursday.
While Minnesota engineer Art Johnston repeatedly emphasized he was not licensed as an engineer in the state, he went on to provide his assessment on the structural condition of the MHS building, which he claimed was in "good shape" and indicated a renovation project could be a better option for the Mitchell Board of Education to pursue. Johnston called the designs of the new high school building the "worst plan."
"I looked at the building. There is no energy assessment. No air quality assessments. There is no nothing. At least that's what I was told," Johnston said. "When I first looked at it, I saw nothing wrong with it. Structurally, yes it is in good shape."
The presentation was put on by a new organization called Mitchell Citizens for Progress. The group brought Johnston in to speak about the new multi-million-dollar high school project that's being discussed among the school board. Over 9,000 fliers were mailed out to Mitchell residents ahead of Thursday's event encouraging people to attend. Roughly 50 people attended the event held at the Davison County Fairgrounds.
Considering it's a violation for engineers to practice in South Dakota without proper licensure, Johnston said he was presenting his assessment on the MHS building during Thursday's meeting as a "member of the community" and not an engineer.
According to South Dakota law, any business entity that desires to practice "engineering, architecture, land surveying, landscape architecture," in the state "shall register with the board of technical professions" by applying for a certificate of authorization.
The state's law defines engineer work as work that includes "consultation, investigation, evaluation, planning, design, and design coordination of engineering works and systems," and the "review or observation of construction for the purpose to determine whether the work is in general accordance with drawings, specifications, and other technical submissions."
Although he claimed the MHS building that dates back to 1962 was in good shape, Johnston agreed there were some issues with the high school.
He said the HVAC system was a "problem" and "won't be cheap to fix."
The proposed new high school project has been a decade in the making. Leaders of the Mitchell School District have been saving funds spanning a decade to position the project by reaching the goal of $42 million. While the district reached the $42 million, which received some help from federal pandemic relief funds, soaring inflation brought the first estimate of the proposed project an astounding $20 million over budget.
Puetz Design + Build and Omaha-based architectural firm Schemmer presented design plans of the new MHS building to the school board, which had an estimated price tag of $62.1 million. In an attempt to reduce the costs of the project, the board has sent architects and contractors back to the drawing board with the hope of a cheaper, alternative design.
The district intentionally avoided attempting a bond issue for the project, as it did not want to force a tax increase on district patrons and the spotty history of success in passing such a referendum. But several of the speakers at Thursday's meeting echoed the need for the new school project to be put to a vote, which would ultimately force a tax increase on Mitchell residents if approved by 60% of voters.
Prior to Johnston's presentation, Paul Dorr, who works for an Iowa-based consulting firm known for its mission to defeat school referendums, presented and attempted to define what his version of progress means. As Dorr put it, sometimes "real progress means vote no."
Dorr has been engulfed in controversy in the past after he burned four LGBTQ-themed children's library books several years ago. He was found guilty of fifth-degree degree criminal mischief in a Sioux County District Court for the book-burning incident, according to the N'West Iowa Review.
Johnston claimed that 50% of school referendums in the country do not pass. He blamed superintendents and school boards for his claimed 50% pass rate of referendums.
"I think it's the superintendent's fault and the school board's fault because they don't have buy-in from their residents. They don't trust you. They will do everything they can to avoid a vote," Johnston said.
Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves was among the attendees at Thursday's event. The meeting didn't bring in any members of Mitchell's school board.
At one point during his rant against school boards, Johnston pointed to the U.S. Department of Justice's memo in 2021 that called on the FBI to probe "threats and concerns of violence" against school board members as a coordinated attempt to silence people against school board plans and indicated everyone at the meeting were likely on a domestic terrorism list, including himself.
Johnston touted his past experience as a former school board member in Duluth, Minnesota and frequently referenced it to bash school boards. During his presentation on Thursday, Johnston criticized the Duluth school board and the way it governed, claiming the board chairman told him at the beginning of his first term that "I had to do whatever they told me to do."
According to reports from Duluth News Tribune, Johnston's time on the school board became shrouded in controversy in 2014 when the board censured him after an independent investigator found Johnston was "intimidating, threatening and abusive" toward a superintendent and school board member.
The 2014 investigation led by an Eden Prairie, Minn., law firm also concluded that Johnston showed a "personal conflict of interest and violated board ethics" during his time on the school board, which was stated in a redacted version of the investigation report. Following the investigation into Johnston that was approved by the school board he was serving on, he lost his bid for re-election. Johnston denied the allegations revealed in the investigation report, according to the Duluth News Tribune.
In 2018, Johnston sued the Duluth School District for not responding to his request for public data, which resulted in a settlement agreement between the two parties. The board denied any wrongdoing.
Ellwyn Nohr, a longtime local engineer, was the final speaker at the event. Nohr issued his support for renovating the school instead of replacing it with a new building. He also criticized the "classic design" of the drawings depicting the proposed new school as "not modern," comparing it to the Federal Reserve building in Washington D.C.
Nohr also referenced his son's take on the new school project, which was published as an online letter to the editor in the Mitchell Republic.
"This old structure is a good piece of work. A well-maintained building will last indefinitely," Nohr said.