Partners in Progress? JCI looks out for Number One
Mike Jacobson

“Partners in Progress.”

That’s what it says on the cover of the contract between the Paynesville Area School District and Johnson Controls, Inc.  

Here in our small school district, located between St. Cloud and Willmar, we’re learning what that means.  

It’s good PR, but here would be some more accurate titles:

“Big Sale for JCI.”

“An Expensive, More-Than-You-Need Heating and Ventilation Solution for the School District #741.”

Or, maybe most accurately, “You Bought This $16 Million Package Hook, Line, and Sinker.”

While Johnson Controls wants to portray themselves as a benevolent vendor, a trusted consultant, with our best interests at heart, it’s clear to me, and becoming obvious to the residents here, that they really are following the creed: “Look out for Number One.”

Here’s a short history of the situation in Paynesville.  Our school district hired Johnson Controls in March 2010 to conduct a $35,000 review of its heating and ventilation system.  The most pressing issues are old steam boilers (dating back to 1956 in our elementary school).    Replacing one of these boilers was estimated to cost $100,000 in the district’s five-year capital plan, but Johnson Controls recommended a $16.5 million project, including replacing three of four boilers, new piping, and virtually a new distribution system.

With scant discussion or public notice, the school board approved the contract with Johnson Controls in August.

When the primary funding mechanism– $14 million in a health and safety levy increase – was revealed by our newspaper in September, public outcry caused our school board to have second thoughts.

In November, they voted to table the project pending a thorough review.  Three community members – with skepticism towards the project and its tremendous costs – were assigned to the review committee.  At the time Johnson Controls pledged to work with our district in reviewing the scale and scope of the work.

During the review, however, they have dug their heels in and have not been particularly helpful.  An independent consultant, hired by our school district, wanted to get a second opinion about the heating and ventilation, which comprises more than $14 million of the project, but this was resisted by Johnson Controls and dropped when they refused to share information. 

While maintaining that they have given us all the options, Johnson Controls has stated that the only ways to reduce the costs of the project are to do the work in stages (first the elementary building, then our secondary school) or to eliminate the dehumidification (which they recommend keeping in the project).

Now, our district, like every school, business, or house across the state, has real building needs.  But they also have educational needs, so every dollar of taxpayer money spent unnecessarily on ventilation is a dollar unavailable to spend on our kids.

We have yet to see costs for repairing our existing heating and ventilation systems.  We have yet to see what $5 million, still a healthy chunk of change, would fix.

Most recently, after months of asking for a buyout option, Johnson Controls offered our district one for $972,276.  

Now, they would have done their first five months of work (March to July) for $35,000.  The contract states that a buyout must be based on “services performed” and “reimbursable expenses,” but somehow their work from August to January (six months) is $937,276, or more than 25 times as much.  Ridiculous!

Like Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger, I am pursuing legal remedies to get important information from Johnson Controls for my community.  We need to know a realistic buyout figure, certainly less than $100,000.  

Then getting a second opinion will be an option, and unless their self-proclaimed “best” solution really turns out to be the best, we could tell JCI to take a hike!

“Partners in Progress” is not how I would describe Johnson Controls.  Despite their public relations efforts, it’s obvious that they are just a big company looking to make a big sale…at the expense of our students and our taxpayers. 

Mike Jacobson is Publisher/Editor of the Paynesville Press in Paynesville, Minn.

E-mail this
Print this
You must be logged in to post a comment. Click here to log in.