My Reader Column Published January 4, 2018
Word has it that the Duluth News Tribune will no longer have an education reporter starting this January. Jana Hollingsworth is to be retired because her aunt, Jill Lofald, is about to be seated on the School Board. The conflict of interest supposedly justifies the stepped-back coverage but I think it’s more a matter of economy. I remember the 20-page News section from 43 years ago densely packed as though white space was a crime. The Trib in the days of Watergate was where locals got their news. Today an entire Trib from sections A to D rarely exceeds 15 of their much smaller pages.
It was still that way when I was elected in 1995. The News Tribune had three education reporters and their editors gave them lots of scope to poke sticks at our board and superintendent. During Julio Almanza’s time at the helm, two of them sat in the superintendent’s office glowering for an hour until he grudgingly handed over a proposal to close five elementary schools.
For the past four years Jana has had to shoulder that responsibility alone. If a big story does pop up, someone is sure to attend a few meetings. I suspect that big story will be the district falling into bankruptcy or Statutory Operating Debt. I offered my condolences to the newly elected board members at my final meeting and suggested that they begin researching that law. It’s happened before.
I ran for the school board in 1989, 1991 and 1993, losing each time. During this period the district fell into SOD, which may help explain my winning in a fourth attempt. I came on board during Superintendent Mark Myles’ era when he was forced to make a great many unpopular budget cuts. That alone did not get us out of the frying pan.
In 1993 Minnesota passed a law to avoid being taken to court by poor school districts desperate for funding. The poor districts were angry that the Legislature was backing away from 1971’s “Minnesota Miracle.” I was in college when that school funding law was passed and wrote a paper on it for my State and Local Government class. It was passed by a long-extinct bipartisan legislature and poured state money into property-poor school districts. The miracle did not last.
Freed from raising local taxes, school boards were quick to raise their spending. Two fiercely competitive teachers’ unions, the AFT and the NEA, competed to see which of them could bring about the most local teachers’ strikes in a bid to gain new locals. I witnessed this in the mid ‘70s as a teacher in the Proctor Schools.
And the fiscal brakes had come off school boards. In the old days, local school boards were mostly composed of tax-averse businessmen and farmers. Once the state could be counted on to finance 70 percent of public education, school boards lost the appetite to fight off strikes. They knew that state taxpayers would pay the lion’s share of their costs.
There were other reasons for farmers and businessmen to avoid local office. Board member Dr. George Balach’s dental practice was boycotted (unofficially) by angry teachers and took a huge hit emotionally and financially. Who needs that?
Although I lost the 1993 election, I pulled off one success. I talked candidate Bob Mars into supporting an “excess levy.” The legislature had sweetened the pot and was willing to give Duluth $3 for every $1 Duluth voters approved. It was an easy sell, especially when Bob got all the other candidates to promise to spend all the new state dollars on building a reserve equal to 10 percent of our annual operating costs. It took about three years to go from a deficit to a $10 million reserve.
Anyone looking for a similar easy fix in 2018 will be disappointed. The state no longer matches our increased local taxes. Where did all those reserves go?
Starting in 2006, new Superintendent Keith Dixon charmed the pants off flinty, tight-fisted, Chamber of Commerce types to build schools we could be proud of. His astonishingly inexperienced school board caught the spirit of those heady days before the 2008 housing crash. Even as that crisis unfolded, Dixon’s school board increased the cost of the building plan by 25 percent against the loud protests of my organization, Let Duluth Vote.
The district was like a small child whose mouth was too big for its stomach. It spent down $30 million of reserves. It laid off teachers in the hundreds. It eliminated its vital Curriculum Department. It ended its generous busing. This would not have been necessary if the board had honestly raised the taxes to pay for the Red Plan’s full costs. However, in the face of criticism the board, perhaps cluelessly, chose instead to cannibalize its operating budget. Today only $2.5 million of the local levy goes into the classroom while $28.5 million pays for the Red Plan.
When the editors of the News Tribune interviewed me for a possible endorsement, I honestly acknowledged that I played a part in the resulting disaster. I’m not sure I made it clear to the editors that my only role was in frightening the school board away from raising taxes. Of course, the editors have never acknowledged that they failed to grasp, let alone report, the looming deficits. As we head, once again, into Statutory Operating Debt the reporterless News Tribune will be flying blind. It won’t be the first time.
By the way. My successors on the school board chose a new set of captains at tonight’s organizational meeting. Sadly, their most education savvy colleague, Alanna Oswald, was frozen out despite a lot of talk a lot about economizing.
Harry Welty is a local eccentric who also pontificates at www.lincolndemocrat.com.