Updated: October 03, 2019 06:43 PM
The backlog of people waiting to take driving tests in Minnesota has forced parents to wait hours in line, sleep in their cars and travel hundreds of miles only to be told the few open spots at the state's testing centers have already been filled.
Yet, while the Department of Driver and Vehicle Services, a division of the Department of Public Safety (DPS), struggles to reduce those wait times, records analyzed by 5 INVESTIGATES show the state agency has given thousands of highly coveted, reserved testing spots to driving schools that do not have active business filings, including several that appear to be violating state law.
Those reservations, which allow driving schools to skip the lines full of frustrated parents and teenagers, have become such a commodity because of the bottleneck at testing sites that some schools are willing to sell access to what is typically a free, behind-the-wheel test.
5 INVESTIGATES found DPS licensed at least seven commercial driving schools even though those schools do not have active business filings with the Secretary of State, including three schools that never registered as businesses, which is required under state law.
Yet, those schools were not only licensed by DPS, but were given a total of more than 2,000 reserved spots this year at the agency's overloaded testing sites.
A DPS spokesperson declined requests for an on-camera interview. In an email, Deputy Director of Communications Doug Neville said the agency is not required to "verify business filings."
State lawmakers have been increasingly critical of the agency's inability to efficiently schedule and conduct behind-the-wheel exams, but Rep. Jon Koznick (R-Lakeville) says the records analyzed by 5 INVESTIGATES show the issues are more significant than previously known.
"We thought it was more a scheduling problem, lack of examiners," Koznick said. "But obviously we need to take a much closer look at the standards that driver schools are held to."
Koznick said he is particularly concerned that several of the driving schools identified by 5 INVESTIGATES recently offered to sell their reservations at testing sites for at least $100 each.
Tina Dols received the quotes over the phone while trying to schedule a driving test for her 16-year-old son.
"This is just insane… it really needs to get fixed," Dols, of Monticello, said. "They should not have these reserved spots and you shouldn't have to pay for the reserved spots."
Doug Neville, the DPS spokesperson, said, "If true, it is extremely disappointing to hear that a convenience afforded the driving school is being abused for the school's financial gain."
5 INVESTIGATES confirmed the schools offered to sell those spots, over the phone, while offering minimal or no behind-the-wheel training.
One of those schools, Inner City Driving School in North Minneapolis, trained only 32 drivers in 2018, records show. Yet, despite that lack of previous training, as well as not registering with the state as a business, Inner City received more than 150 reserved spots this year.
A man who answered the door at that school's listed address on Morgan Avenue refused to explain how the school obtained so many reserved spots from DPS, saying, "So, what does that have to do with anything?"
When asked why schools that trained only dozens of students would be given hundreds of reserved spots, Neville said the supervisors at testing sites, who have allocated such reservations upon request for more than 15 years, do not have information about a school's enrollment.
DPS confirmed it received multiple complaints earlier this summer about reserved spots at testing centers and has suspended scheduling of future reservations until the practice is fully audited.
Dave Kleis, who has owned and operated Central Minnesota Driving Academy for nearly three decades, said DPS allowed the system to be taken advantage of at the taxpayers' expense. His school is a registered business and has not received reserved testing spots.
"It's not fair, it's not ethical and, if it's not (already), it really shouldn't be legal," said Kleis, who is also the longtime mayor of St. Cloud. "There should never be a situation where a public, taxpayer paid-for exam is sold by the private sector in any way."
Koznik, the state representative from Lakeville, said he will introduce legislation to address the mounting issues at testing sites.
"They have fair warning right now that they better have some answers," he said.
Jessica Miles can be reached by phone at 651-647-2869 or by email here.
Joe Augustine & Jessica Miles
Updated: October 03, 2019 06:43 PM
Published: October 03, 2019 12:00 AM
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