9th Day of Christmas

December 22nd, 2014

This is what I should be thinking about today.

My Mother made this the year my daughter began taking the school bus up the hill to kindergarten at Piedmont Elementary School.

8th Day of Christmas B

December 21st, 2014

I twice asked her to run for the School Board. Judy donated to a couple of my campaigns even my hair brained campaign to run against the unstoppable Congressman Jim Oberstar as a “Unity Party” candidate.

Somewhere I probably still have the very nice note she wrote to me about my smarts as a School Board member.

8th Day of Christmas A

December 21st, 2014

I’ve already been up once today reviewing my blog for mention of the things which could get me kicked off the Duluth School Board. Its not easy to sleep when you know your colleagues are dreaming of donning their black caps like a British judge in a capital case.

My son is sleeping off his eleven hour drive to get home for Christmas and I’m trying to be quiet. It didn’t help that our cat hurried upstairs after his breakfast for a noisy bout of tossing his cookies close to his benefactors and slaves.

I’m glad Claudia and I got our Christmas shopping mostly taken care of yesterday but it wasn’t without interruption. I had sagely decided that the School Board’s attempt to hush up Monday’s meeting had be scuttled so I left a message on the Trib’s answering machine to encourage them to check out my blog. I got a call while heading into the Target parking lot from their reporter John Lundy. His beat is not the School Board but I did my best to fill him in before catching up with Claudia who was none to happy that my community service was breaking up her Christmas reverie.

My paper just got delivered but I’ll set it aside to listen to my taped interview by Mary Rice who managed to mangle what I told her when I questioned her a few weeks back. I’ll have to keep her botched job handy Monday when something will happen, only God and my Chairman knows what.

So, I’ll do a little transcribing and then go to the basement to listen to a complicated choral work by John Rutter that I haven’t quite mastered for today’s worship service. After that perhaps I’ll have the stomach to read the story I had to make sure was slapped on the front page of the Trib before my appearance Monday in the witness stand.

Like my other Christmas Season posts this one is cataloged under “Happy Holidays.” This one, however, is more like an advertisement for my school board colleague’s Winter Fishing Season. I just hope I’m the big one who got away.

7th Day of Christmas B

December 20th, 2014

While my Grandson was conquering the world in our enthusiastic game of Risk I got a call on my cell. It was the District’s HR Director just checking in on me to see whether I had looked at my District email today. “No, I haven’t,” I informed him. (I’ve gotten a little casual about checking it recently.) He told me that a meeting had been scheduled for Monday at 4:30 to begin an investigation of me and that I had the option of a closed or an open meeting.

“Oh an open meeting, by all means.” I replied jauntily but with a the beginning of a sharp pain in my chest.

Here’s the resolution we will be discussing”

R E S O L U T I O N

Executive (Closed) Session

WHEREAS, Minnesota Statutes section 13D.05, subd. 2.(b) provides that the School Board shall close a meeting for preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to School Board authority.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, By the School Board of Independent School District 709, St. Louis County, Minnesota, that the School Board shall meet in Executive (Closed) Session on Monday, December 22, 2014 at approximately 4:30 p.m. in the Board Conference Room of Historic Old Central High School for the purpose of discussion related to preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to School Board authority.

Golly, its only been seven months since we had the last such meeting.

Since the Twelve Days of Christmas posts began on Lincolndemocrat I’ve been having secret meetings trying to arrange a big kiss and make up meeting among school board members. This isn’t what I had in mind.

I will honor my promise not to comment on my fellow board members through the Season.

7th Day of Christmas A

December 20th, 2014

My Mother’s inspiration for this ornament was the daughter of one of her friends and fellow Harpies, as the co-owners of her boutique called themselves. I was looking for a bird ornament because of the nature of today’s first post but the loon with a stocking cap is one our children painted when she gave them a craft project to do so its not quite authentic.

I was going to write about my visit with Art Johnston at his house the other day. Like Gary Glass who lived a short walk in East Duluth from his work at the Federal Water Lab, Art worked a short walk in West Duluth from the old Riverside School where the Federal Forest Service has its office. Art is an avid skier and a sail boater and it always seems I call his phone when he’s out on the bay or shushing along the railroad tracks that lie near his home. The wind is often as bad as the static from the dead spots when we talk.

There are a lot of things about Art the public doesn’t know so I was pleased yesterday when Loren Martell listed them in a long paragraph in his most recent column in the Reader. Because of the Holiday I won’t link to Mr. Martell’s column but I will steal his paragraph:

Really? It was reasonable to fear that Art Johnston—a respected, educated citizen, a retired engineer and five-year member of the school board, someone civic-minded enough to be a Denfeld High music booster and log several hours reading to second graders at Laura MacArthur Elementary school, someone who is a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels and a donor to both Woodland Hills Academy for troubled youth and First Witness, an organization dedicated to preventing child abuse, someone who has a Coast Guard pilot’s license and teaches adult education courses in celestial navigation, someone who is a member of the NAACP and a member of the district seven DFL Executive Board, someone who has passed the very stringent background check for security clearance for a TWIC card (established after 9/11) for someone entering a site of potential terrorism (the Duluth harbor, as a Coast Guard pilot, for example) and also recently passed another rigorous background check through an application process as a foster parent, someone with a resume few others in this town can match—

My parents did some birding when I was young. I remember their delight at spotting a scarlet tanager when I was a kid out on one of their forays. I have an old Roger Torrey Peterson Guide myself from a few forays Claudia and I did in our years together. I fondly recall the time twenty years ago as a chaperon on a week-long church mission trip to help fix up poor folks houses in Trinidad, Colorado when I noticed a group of scissor tailed flycatchers fitting about. I dragged my daughter over to get a look at them. I hadn’t seen one since living in Kansas twenty years before that.

Sitting in Art’s dining room looking over at his feeders I saw some interesting birds which wasn’t surprising due to the forested nature of his property. At one point I stopped a discussion on a fine point of the law to exclaim, “what’s that? A warbler?”

“It’s probably a pine sisken” he called back before looking over his shoulder. Nope it was a warbler something I’ve never seen at feeder, let alone at this late point in our winter season. As it flew off I could clearly see the yellow mark on its rump. “Its a Myrtle Warbler,” I shouted. “Its a butter butt! Art shouted back.

Art explained that twenty years ago birders rechristened Myrtles “yellow rumped Warblers.” He added that at Bird Counts his buddies called them “Butter Butts” a far more memorable sobriquet. We spent half an hour looking out at the birds that were flying too and from his feeder. He offered me one of his binoculars which I declined because those fine points of the law were waiting and because I’d promised to get back home to play a game of Risk with Claudia and the Tan Man who still had that persistent fever.

Art pestered me to join him today in the annual Christmas Bird Count but I declined the offer several times. My son is coming home today, I’ve got a truck load of papers strewn all over my office to clean up and remove the dust bunnies from. Settling my Mother’s estate requires some foot work. We are late with our Christmas Shopping. The list goes on and on. But that’s what Art and his “friend” will be doing today. I wish them a long count.

6th Day of Christmas

December 19th, 2014

When I just popped over the the Damiano Soup Kitchen there were more than enough volunteers from our church to serve food so I begged permission from Flo to return the the work of tidying up my Mother’s estate.

I wish I had a flying reindeer. I could use a little magic. At the moment its in very short supply.

Fifth Day of Christmas B

December 18th, 2014

Tonight my daughter invited me to take advantage of her educator’s discount at a Scholastic Books sale.

I was looking for books I might read especially to younger grades but didn’t find quite what I was looking for. Instead I bought three books that appealed to me as an adult and as a historian. As I came home with them I wondered if I could paste them together in a little bedtime history lesson for my older grandson. It was asking something of a seven-year old to listen to history when he was looking forward to the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid but he told me he liked history and gave me permission to be pedantic. Read the rest of this entry »

5th Day of Christmas

December 18th, 2014

I’m imperfect. That is something we all are encouraged to accept in the message of the man whose birth we celebrate at this time of year. My own ongoing imperfections were outlined in this letter today in the Trib. (So far I’ve only read the headline and the Author’s name. I will have ample time to do read it in the coming day and ample time to reflect on it over the course of the coming year.)

Why have I been too busy to pour over the paper? Well, I’ve been watching Box Car Children this morning with my grandsons one of whom I just delivered to his daycare. Yesterday I played a three-hour marathon of Monopoly with the older boy. I think its been twelve or more years since I last played the game. The Tan Man clobbered me and, like most seven-year olds, derived much satisfaction in his triumph. He was staying with us because he had a fever and couldn’t go to school. We were just pulling grandparent duty and that duty continues today. I hear him and his Grandmother now playing Angry Birds downstairs.

This will be my last mention of politics for the Season and, as it all relates to me, I think I’m safe in doing so without damaging the spirit of good will that these posts are meant to foster. Its a spirit rather well embodied in the paper mache figure (pictured above) that my Mother sculpted twenty years ago.

Last night I received an email subject titled “Control Freakish”.

It read in part:

Hi Harry,

I’m growing concerned at the amount of control you are trying to assert over this whole political pot hole mess.  You really shouldn’t be advocating to people to not speak their minds. To leave meetings to go request people not speak at the board meeting is completely counter productive towards the goal of wanting people to be more involved, and getting people to speak up is a constant battle. Not enough people, including myself, speak out. Now you are running around requesting people not do it? That is not cool….

From afar, I’m seeing you get obsessed and absorbed by a political in the end, as I believe others are only going to see you as a person who is manipulative and scheming.

I responded in part:

If I fail this is what I think I face:

Raising a hundred thousand dollars. Spending all my time with lawyers in court and no time time in schools. A community civil war. Years of delay in fixing the financial drain that the Red Plan has been. Making half of Duluth hate me and the rest of the School Board for the damned good reason that we have placed our vanity above the interests of the children we were elected to serve.

This explains my reluctance to imperil my diminishing hope for peace. And you are wrong. I do have some control over things. My Mom always told me it takes two sides to fight. I’m just not taking any swings right now.

God damn me. God damn every one of us.

Had I been a little more reflective I would have concluded: “God save me. God save every one of us.”

My Mother, whose own father was the elected State Auditor of Kansas for 24 unblemished years, often told me that she wished I would not go into politics. Its really her own fault that I did. When I told her in Junior High, at the time I was reading JFK’s “Profiles in Courage,” that I was ugly she turned my adolescent insecurity on its head. She didn’t argue and tell me that I was pretty . Instead she told me that Abraham Lincoln was a terribly homely man. That idea came as a shock to me. I’d looked at his pictures in those years following the Civil War’s Centennial hundreds of time. I especially remember pouring over all his photo portraits in a Life magazine article in 1961 or 62. All I had ever seen in his photographs was nobility, sagacity, resolve and in a few of them a small hint of mischief. My Mother helped me see Lincoln the way people of his time saw him in the gruesome cartoons they drew of him. Because of my Mother my new attitude was “By God, if I’m ugly why should I let that bother me?”

Appearances are often deceiving. In this Season might all ask ourselves why we still worship a pathetic man who was executed in the most humiliating way his own followers could possibly imagine. And yet, despite that degradation, even Kings like Good King Wenceslas would come to emulate and worship the Carpenter.

4th Day of Christmas

December 17th, 2014

Even when I was little and my Mother made her first tiny paper mache angles she began using other materials where the mache was structurally insufficient. I remember she used some stiff board for angel wings long before she began making ornaments for her store. I’m not sure what this little sprite’s flute is made out of but I’d guess its from wood or bamboo.

It would be hard to deduce from this light little bauble that my Mother had a deep and probing mind about people. It seems so carefree its hard to think in terms of complexity. My first serious conversation with my Mother concerned an older boy, perhaps a seventh grader, who I saw burst out in tears when some other kids called him queer. I’ve written about this before.

When we moved to Minnesota at the same time her Father was moved to a senior citizens center she was consumed with guilt for leaving him alone. She and her older sister began traveling to Topeka, Kansas for a week alternating every other month. I remember my Mom spent the week ahead of her sojourn making casseroles to freeze for our family to eat while she was away. When she returned after spending a week with her father talking to him she would talk to me about her conversations. I’ve only recently realized the part I played as her debriefer. I now have been left that legacy. The people who stories I was told will die with me when I too pass on from the Earth. I’d like to begin writing those stories down to live on as long, at least, as paper or the Cloud lasts.

3rd Day of Christmas B

December 16th, 2014

I started on this last night at 9:30 when the falling snow began to stick to the sidewalk as the temps dipped toward freezing. I was finished two hours later after repairing wing damage. The snow I had piled up earlier was sodden with two days of melt and six hours of rain. It was also rather dirty snow, something I can usually avoid when the skies let loose. This time the beggar couldn’t be a chooser. The more forward wing fell off completely because it was so heavy and I had to rebuild it. Besides this anxiety causing fix much of my time was spent taking the dirtiest snow and hiding it and trying to take cleaner snow and use it toward the front where the viewing audience would be gazing up at my flickering hope for peace. I figure I have until Christmas to achieve it. I don’t want to think about the alternative but its been limiting me to a few hours sleep for a couple weeks now.

My wife reminded me I was going to have lunch with one grandson today just before we went to see the other’s school holiday performance. I lowered my head remembering that I’d set up an emergency meeting to discuss peace talks through the lunch. Fourth meeting in five days.

I’ll miss lunch with Jake but somehow I’ll get to the song fest.

I have a request of my readers. Tonight at the School Board meeting, should you come, please don’t sign up to speak and take the heads off of anyone. One of my slenderest chances to keep the peace is to hold not only my own fire but everyone else’s. That won’t be easy and, nerve wrackingly, keeping that peace at our meeting even with the audience has become a make or break precondition.

We have a closed meeting at 5:30 to discuss the Superintendent’s evaluation. I’ve already given Mr. Gronseth all my thoughts and I am likely to skip out early to patrol the Board room to request anyone signing up to hold their peace where school board conflicts are concerned. If my peace mission fails there will be many months ahead to bring grievances up again so I hope its not asking too much to resist that flammable subject tonight. The stakes are very high. Its no less than the health of our schools and the education of our children.

On the other hand, I don’t think I should be held to account to keep taxpayers still tonight because we are having our legislatively mandated “Truth in Taxation” hearing tonight as part of our regular monthly meeting. Still, I’ll ask that speakers stick to the issue of taxes and stay away from commenting on feuding among School Board members.

The dove above is not quite like the one that my Mother made back in the 1950′s. We artistes all follow our own eccentric muses. Mine has a little plastic evergreen in its beak simulating an olive branch. Still, I thank her again for this inspiration.

3rd Day of Christmas A

December 16th, 2014

I’m the curator of my Mother’s Art and would some day like to print a little coffee table book of her work. I looked though my computer just now and discovered that this bear was made in 1982 as her second batch of Christmas ornaments. I took pictures of each year’s graduating class that I have samples of. She made them from 1981 through my Father’s death in 87 until 1994. In the early years she didn’t put the year of creation by her signature, “by George.” Somehow I deduced the year of manufacture eight years ago or so when she first was sent to live in a dementia wing of Walker Methodist in Minneapolis and I began my curating. I spent the year taking pictures of all her work and began collecting images of everything I could lay my hand on. New old stuff pops up every so often.

Recently I found one of her painting from around the 1970′s that was given back to my sister by the family of one of my Mother’s best friends. The friend had died and the family thought the painting should go back to us. My sister, in turn, gave it to my daughter as a wedding present last summer.

2nd Day of Christmas C

December 16th, 2014

Thanks Mom.

I sent out a request for graphic ideas that suggested miracles. Maybe it was my Mom who sent it to me from the stars although she was more of an agnostic like me. She also got the scare of her life when newly married to my Dad he told her he thought he’d like to be a minister. Today she maybe holding my Grandson’s lost silver star helium balloon.

Still, I mentioned in one of my recent posts about some paper mache doves she made for what I presume were Christmas decorations. Within a couple hours after that post it occurred to me that this was the perfect symbol for my snow sculpture. Furthermore, the rains had not completely melted my little pile of snow and, after dark, it was supposed to go back to freezing. Those would be perfect conditions lasting but one night for me to make a dove.

Its done although its not much to look at. I can’t quite bear to post my night time camera phone pictures of it taken without a flash. Modest as it is the ones I took do it little justice. I got it built before midnight so it was worth a mention in the 2nd Night of Christmas series. I’ll take a picture of it tomorrow if vandals haven’t had their way with it and post it then.

2nd Day of Christmas B

December 15th, 2014

Yesterday we took our Grandson’s Christmas Tree hunting at Selins on the Homestead Road. I warned the boys we would have to proceed quietly or the trees would hear us and take flight. Its really a shame how early small children take to rolling their eyes. Both boys got to help fell the tree and you can see how the Tan Man and I are a fluid team felling our unwary balsam.

I’ve never picked out a better sized tree for the space in our living room. Its just right while it waits for lights and ornaments to welcome Santa when he … well, he used to come down the chimney but we put a gas insert so I’m hoping he has other avenues for ingress.

I remember the first time I went out to hunt a tree. I was still in high school or the first year of college and my folks were content to let the kids do the harvesting. All previous harvests had been in parking lots but somehow we got wind of a tree farm, or just a farm, that wanted some trees cut down. I drove my siblings out to the country and we wandered around inspecting the trees available to us. They weren’t the typical shape but more like an onion dome on a Russian Church. Out in the open they didn’t seem so big and we wanted big. I can’t imagine what our old Chrysler Newport looked like with that behemoth roped down on it but it seemed to take up half our living room once inside. It also left a nice tarry stain on the ceiling when we hoisted it into place.

Tree size does make a difference. The pile of presents under it didn’t look quite so generous as usual.

2nd Day of Christmas A

December 15th, 2014

Mr. Gerdejanson (Spelling?) 1989

My sister Becky was part of a string quartet at Mankato West High School and Mr. Gerdejanson was her string teacher. I’m not one hundred percent sure this ornament was modeled on the teacher but I sort of think that was the case. By the time my Mother made this one she had been making Christmas tree ornaments for a decade. By 1989 my Mother had left Duluth and was no longer a regular part of Harpies Bazaar but she had a hard time giving up her popular ornaments. By this time they were getting far more elaborate.

In the early years she made simple figures and painted arms on them. Eventually the arms budded and like this musician took on such things as this violin.

Mom had been working with paper mache since I was a kid and may have learned the technique in her college Art classes. By the time I was little and my Dad was in law school she put her art to work as a window decorator at a local Topeka department store called Nightengales. We would take the bus downtown where she dropped me off at a daycare/nursery while she continued on to work a few blocks further.

I have an old yellow newspaper clipping from those years of large paper mache figurines Mom had made of singers for some Christmas event. I also recall that we had half a dozen hand sized doves that she must have made as center pieces for some table arrangement.

When I was in fifth grade I enjoyed some momentary celebrity in my class when Mom volunteered to help my class make paper mache puppets. It was probably a week long project and our teacher got her husband to make a puppet theater where we could hide ourselves while having our new puppets perform. That’s also my first recollection of making an audience laugh with an extemporaneous quips. I must have had a particularly clever puppet.

1st Day of Christmas B

December 15th, 2014

Here’s that Spirit of Christmas Past I was telling you about.

At our Church Men’s group this week one of the fellows, a retired pastor, discussed a book he’d read about how Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol saved Christmas. It is a fine story. Claudia has made it a habit to watch several versions of the story every Christmas. This year so far she’s only watched it once with our grandsons. That was the Muppet version and our littlest one has taken quite a fancy to it especially with the two puppet ghosts of Marley.

Tonight as I was fussing with the pictures in the last post Marley appeared dragging his heavy chains. He was followed by the Spirits of future and past Christmases and Bob Cratchit carrying Tiny Tim a little recklessly on his shoulder.

Through the years I’ve always been struck by stories about redemption and warnings from beyond. One of my favorite movies is Groundhog day although there are no ghosts in it. I have often sung Ghost Riders in the Sky to my Mother in which the cowboys chasing the Devil’s herd endlessly across the sky could be spurred stand-ins for Marley.

You might recall that on the day of my Mother’s death my little spirit of Christmas past got recast at the last minute as the snowman, Olaf, in his preschool’s Holiday extravaganza. He’s still at his theatrical best having acted out the better half of the Carol today. That was after we took him to help us cut down a Christmas tree. I’ll post a picture of that tomorrow.

1st Day of Christmas A

December 14th, 2014

I’m swearing off school board politics here until the tire is patched or otherwise. Until then, on very good advice, I’m sticking with safe subjects like Christmas.

At the moment I have my almost five year old Jacob Marley at my elbow (really) warning me of the Spirit of Christmas Present about to visit me.

I’ll begin each day until Christmas itself with a close up of one of my Mother’s ornaments. (Christmas Future just paid a call on me. I asked him if the future he showed me could be changed and he assured me it could be – really. He was also a great snowman in his Holiday pageant “Frozen.”)

(The grim and silent Spirit of the future just returned after a costume change as the Spirit of Christmas Past. I’ll post a picture tonight to prove it.)

By George

December 13th, 2014

I keep finding myself thinking that I have to plan which day I need to visit my Mom to sing to her again and realizing I’ve got more time on my hands. When I sang I would tell her what was going on in my life and remind her about her past to keep the neurons humming. For Christmas I’ll treat my readers like Mom.

Tonight we are putting up the ornaments she made and sold in the 1980′s. I probably got my inspiration for sculpture from her fanciful paper mache Christmas ornaments. They were quite popular in Mankato and she made new varieties in a limited supply each year. She signed them “by George” and as time went on she placed each ornament’s year of birth on them. Her kids were given nearly complete sets each Christmas. Above you can see the ones I removed from Styrofoam packing peanuts tonight for hanging from greens above our sun room.

No miracles for this snow sculptor

December 13th, 2014

What promised to begin as a good snow sculpting season hasn’t really materialized. We got a bit of snow before Thanksgiving but not enough. Besides that it was speckled with the leaves I didn’t get a chance to rake up first. I made a clay pilgrim and turkey as a model to speed up sculpting but no more snow arrived until Turkey day had come and gone.

I get occasional suggestions for what to sculpt which I only rarely decide to follow through on. Last Spring’s Wicked Witch of the West was such an example. Recently I got an email urging me to take on the School Board with some sort of parody or satire. I did that for several years running but I don’t have the heart to do that now. I quote Twain all the time but I also know that no one runs for the school board to do injury to children or schools. At the moment I’m looking for a holiday miracle to back away from a year’s worth of mayhem. Maybe I could pray for some decent snow while I’m at it.

A couple days ago I thought I’d like to emphasize a miracle in my snow sculpting. The problem was I couldn’t think of something miraculous to sculpt that would convey that message. I typed in “miracle” in my Google search to see what sort of images I could come up with. Of all the images that popped up only one seemed to me to be really miraculous but it didn’t lend itself to any good analogy with our School District or School Board. It was an image of an adult’s hands cupping an infant’s feet. I decided to Google that particular image and dozens of others popped up.

I printed out the best of the hands and feet images and scraped up the minuscule new snow that fell earlier in the week piling it around what was meant to be my Pilgrim and Turkey. This morning Claudia walked by the picture and couldn’t tell what the heck it was although it was sitting by a small pile of clay. The clay was the sure sign that I intended to sculpt the picture. Claudia, who doesn’t read my blog, had no idea what such an image was meant to convey. Later this morning when I began to mold hands and feet out of the clay she told me she wasn’t sure the image was such a good idea. She worried people wouldn’t be able to tell what it was. She even said it looked vaguely sexual which reminded me of Georgia Okeeffe’s paintings which were infamous for that quality.

This is what I had in mind:

I’ve got two good days of sculpting weather ahead of me and a small pile of snow. Anyone with any suggestions on some hopeful looking image please send me your ideas at: harrywelty@charter.net.

It takes two to tangle

December 12th, 2014

I read Sam Cook’s thoughtful column today with interest. I don’t usually read his columns because I don’t hunt and I rarely fish but I like Sam’s style. Back when I had a mustache I’d have people confuse me with him much to my amusement. I thought it was funny partly because we both got our start in Kansas although we both mostly lost our drawls ages ago.

If I were where Sam is I’d probably have written much the same column. I’m not however so I’ll have to hew to all the posts I’ve put in this blog going back to the Ice Age. I would guess that Sam heard from his Kansas mother what my Kansas mother told me on several occasions as I was growing up. “It takes two to have a fight.”

There is an important corollary to this rustic old saying and that is – It takes two to end a quarrel.

As Loren Martell makes clear – our quarrel is a donnybrook.

For my part I tell anyone who will listen that our situation reminds me of an old African proverb: “When elephants fight the grass gets trampled.”

In this case the grass is the 24 bright young high school students Sam met in an English composition class. I hope that our two sides remain mindful of the grass below our big stumpy feet.

Simple Math

December 11th, 2014

Despite his peppery stubbornness Art Johnston will be exonerated while the rest of the school board will suffer serious discredit. If not in the upcoming hearing then after a costly, prolonged court battle and/or in a November election.

The criticism of Art is based on a current fad for faux civility and denying Art his first amendment protection of Free Speech something the Editors of the Duluth News Tribune ought to be skittish about themselves. There is a charge of assault that has been dumbed down to – he shouldn’t have touched the arms of the Superintendent and the Chairman of the Board and pointed his fingers at them. His yelling was largely unheard by anyone not directly in front of him and the two episodes together barely lasted three minutes on the day an administrator, an Administration favorite who had it out for Art, plunged a knife into Art’s partner of fourteen years.

Furthermore Art’s long list of angry words were themselves provoked by a willful majority of the School Board who prevented Art (and me) from asking questions about the District’s finances. What we asked for should have been public data available to anyone requesting it. What kind of unreasonable questions were we asking? Oh, things like: “who was paid $84 million in mysterious “soft costs” for the construction of the Red Plan?” The unwillingness of the Board majority to let these answers be aired or answered explain’s Art’s 1st Amendment protected peppery comments at School Board meetings.

Art had been reelected by his voters to ask those questions. They are rightly fearful that in the new Red Plan School District their children are being dealt an inferior hand.

I recommend the previous two posts in which I try to simplify the muddled financial explanations by our current Administration to help explain why all our children (not just those out west) have seen continuing declines in our educational program. Over the course of what promises to be a year long slog through the courts I will offer documents backing up this addition to those posts.

For now you will simply have to take my word for the following:

From the beginning the school District’s Red Plan financing never made sense to me. Fortunately I am a pack rat and after being elected I went through some of the debris in my attic left over from my previous term on the School Board. One such document was from 1997. It laid out the year’s budget showing that our levy of local property tax payers was about $22.5 million dollars (I may be a million off on this but its a good enough figure for now)

Of that we were paying off $2.5 million each year to bond holders for previous building projects. How much did that leave us to spend on operations?

$22,500,000.00
-$2,500,000.00
$20,000,000.00

I can’t guarantee that we actually were putting $20 million into what we would call classroom expenses. Still that was money not flowing to bankers.

So, How much do we have today to spend from our property taxes on something other than Building bond debt repayment?

That was answered on Monday this week when we looked at our preliminary 2014 audit.

On page 34 we find that our levy has increased radically from 1997′s $22,500,000.00. This school year we are levying $32,853,480.86 for our 2015 payments. I will round this up to $33 million.

Now let me do another oversimplified calculation before I continue.

We now know that the Red Plan will cost roughly $480,000,000.00 over approximately twenty years of repayments. How much is this annualized debt repayment? More math.

$480,000,000.00/20 years = $24 million per year

Now we get to the coup de grace. How much can we currently spend on operations after subtracting $24 million each year from our local property tax levy? Here goes:

$33,000,000.00 (the 2014 levy)
-24,000,000.00 (the annualized cost of debt repayment on the Red Plan)
$ 9,000,000.00 (local levy available for costs other than debt repayment)

Now let’s compare how much of our current local property taxes we have to spend on operations vs. the funds available back in 1997:

1997 non debt service = $20,000,000.00 VS 2014 non debt service = $ 9,000,000.00

We had about eleven million more of our local property taxes to spend on classrooms seventeen years ago. What the School Boards of the past seven years did, perhaps unwittingly, was to take half of the local levy that had been used for operations and cut it to use to pay off Red Plan costs and prevent taxpayers from rioting in the streets. Was such draconian cutting of the school program worth it?

I wrote in the previous post: “We were told last night that the average teacher currently costs us $90,000/year.”

$11,000,000.00 would buy us a lot of teachers; more than enough to ensure we had no secondary classes with 40 kids in them and probably enough to buy back the lost music programs that blew away with the seventh hour among other lost opportunities for our children.

I think a much better explanation for the attempt to remove Art Johnston is the Board majority’s desire to suppress information damaging to the school boards of the past. It almost invites the question of what there is to hide. This will be a costly, heavy-handed distraction from the work of the school board all to embarrass and muzzle a member who refuses to stop asking embarrassing questions. It would have been so much easier just to keep refusing to let him get answers to his questions.

Remember the sales pitch to Duluth was that the Red Plan would offer lots of savings. Even if there are some savings its still costing us $24 million a year or thereabouts.

An honest sales pitch would have warned us that we needed to dig much deeper to pay for the Red Plan. If we wanted to have all our new schools made over in a six year stretch without drastic cuts to our classrooms we should have planned on paying $24 million more a year making our annual taxes $46.5 million and not today’s $33,000,000.00 million. The math on that is simple too. Just add $24 million to 1997′s 22.5 million.

Could we get voters to pass another ten million a year to cover the Red Plan’s shortfall? Not if the School Board’s only response to Art Johnston’s asking unwanted questions is to deprive him of his first amendment protected right to ask unpleasant questions.

Recently the Duluth News Tribune editorial board, which resisted asking too many questions about the Red Plan during its heyday, wrote a scathing editorial about our now decrepit public library decrying its shabby construction. Its only a mere 35 years old. Let’s hope that the Red Plan will not provide Duluth a similar unhappy surprise 35 years hence. Like our School Board the Editorial Board seem a little over eager to have Art Johnston’s First Amendment Rights ridden roughshod and to get him and his pesky questions off their front pages.