Senator Grams sells the farm

I just got an interesting email. Former Senator Rod Grams and his wife Chris sent me an email alerting me to what appears to be an auction of his Minnesota farm. Here’s the picture they sent with it. Looks like a nice place. They asked me to send the email on to everyone on my email list. I presume they won’t mind my posting it here either.

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3257/2625462879_ddfbc95b3d.jpg?v=0

I ran against Rod last year for Congress. We were both defeated by Congressman Jim Oberstar. Its nice to know that Rod holds no grudges. Of course, it is a tough housing market. Here’s the text of the email:

Please forward to your e-mail list. Also, please feel free to call Rod or Chris at 320-632-2992 if you have questions. Thanks!

Chris Grams
General Manager
Little Falls Radio Corporation
16405 Haven Road
Little Falls, MN 56345
320-632-2992
320-632-2571 FAX
AM960 KLTF – Q92 WYRQ – FM94 KFML

Old buildings – Smart kids

Duluth’s showing in recent statewide tests of our students were mentioned in today’s Trib.

Let me point out that these results were achieved in the old buildings that the School Board is so hot to tear down at the likely cost of $5 million operting costs. (When the hoped for fall levy is voted down rather than renewed) It will be interesting to see if new buildings can compensate for dozens of laid off teachers.

These tests are part of the Federal No Child Left Behind effort which is the bane of so many in public education. Today’s NPR broadcast had a good story on NCLB this morning but I didn’t see it listed on their website. However, they have another interesting story on small vs. big schools. A sample:

Small probably is better, even if it’s more expensive (and it probably isn’t). Many small schools insist they can turn on a dime and change their educational strategies while big schools are like oil tankers and change slowly. Small schools can cultivate a family feel and keep a closer eye on kids likely to fall through the cracks. Big schools do have their high points — diversity of courses, extracurricular sports — but small programs can often piggyback on big schools and, for example, send students to the local high schools for football.

There’s a real hunger out there for education that’s tailored to the needs of individual kids. With more than a million kids dropping out of the American school system every year, smaller, innovative schools have a huge audience to serve

Anxiety over Press Coverage

I’ve been aware for a month that the Trib was finally preparing to write a story about the JCI/Red Plan critics, Robert Aho and Art Johnston, who so far have been ignored by Duluth’s only major daily newspaper. I can no longer complain that we haven’t been given a chance to tell our side of the story. The Education reporter Sarah Horner has interviewed many of us recently but it seems as though for every critic who is willing to speak out JCI can marshall a dozen testimonials.

I woke up at 3AM this morning agonizing about how this story is going to turn out. I crawled out of bed and dashed off this email to Sarah.

Sarah,

One last thing. I think the experience with JCI in Superior, Wisconsin is instructive. Its the way our project should have been run. In the 90’s Superior wanted a big reconfiguration of their schools and Dave Korhonen was hired to do it. He was in charge and he was employed by the School District. JCI, which Dave swears by as a good provider of environmental controls, did not call the shots. That is what should be happening in Duluth. We should have hired a project manager whose loyalties were to the Duluth Schools not to the vender selling services to the Duluth Schools.

All the mischief in Duluth began once it was discovered that there might be a way to authorize a building program in Duluth without a vote and then to compound the problem by letting JCI, a vender, run the show. I’m not sure how many kids were in the Superior Schools in the 90’s but today, according to Wikipedia, it has over 5,000 students or half what the Duluth Schools have. The cost for their great overhaul in the 90’s was $47 million. That’s a lot of money for little Superior but its far less per student than the Red Plan. Here are the round figures for comparison:

Superior 5,000 students / $50,000,000 = $10,000 per child
Duluth 10,000 students / $300,000,000 = $30,000 per child

But that’s just the beginning of the comparison.

Dave Korhonen told me that when Superior built all its new schools Wisconsin had a very different law in place than Minnesota does now. In the case of Superior the State of Wisconsin paid fully 2/3rds of the cost of their school building project. Of that $47 million expense Superior taxpayers only paid $15 million dollars for their new schools – a fraction of what Duluth taxpayers will pay under the Red Plan. That’s $3,000 per child compared to Duluth’s $30,000 per child. When Deb Devaney (an old friend of mine) complains about our failing to keep up with Superior she is completely oblivious to facts like these.

If the critics of JCI are wrong and JCI has done nothing to break the law but only to bend it, that doesn’t change the fact that it is still the fox guarding the hen house. The contrast in building costs between Superior where JCI was simply a vender and Duluth where JCI is the project manager as well as vender is stark.

JCI has a thin track record as a project manager but a thick one as a selling organization. They have sold us a very expensive plan, while insinuating themselves into the Duluth Schools as the manager entitling them to decide what Duluth needs to buy. Judging by this summer’s projects there seems to be a strong preference for JCI products.

JCI begins milking Duluth

The first two Red Plan building projects run by JCI are underway. Here’s the Trib’s story. Stowe and Lakewood are two of the newest buildings in the District. And what is JCI doing to them? According the the article:

Scope of work: Installation of an updated fire alarm system, sprinkler system, security system, energy efficient lighting and heating and cooling systems and classroom Smart Board; upgrades to the school’s playground equipment and to small sections of the exterior of the building

JCI and its subsidiaries manufacture all of these items. Why are they, being put into the newest schools? Because as Robert Aho explains:

“My understanding about these two schools are that they are less in need of upgrades, but the control systems were by someone else. By putting these two projects at the top of the list, JCI ensures long-term contracts for maintaining the control systems and shuts out their prime competitor, ABE. Those control systems are only around ten years old—why on earth would they need replacement? Because they are somebody else’s control systems, that’s all.”

ABE of Duluth which was permitted to bid on these projects but frozen out after several mechanical engineers who knew how much it had bid on the project were pressured by JCI to spill the beans. Once JCI had a good idea how much to bid on the project itelf ABE stood little chance of winning the bid and the mechanical contractors all got the word. Play ball with JCI if you want any work because they do all the hiring.

There are sixteen schools in Duluth which could be worked on. As Dave Korhonen, JCI’s first Red Plan Project manager explained to me it might be easier to let one manufacturer provide the guts of all the schools so that if you get the first jobs all the others will fall your way. It looks like JCI got the head start it needed.

After snooping around for its little competitor’s bid price JCI turned in its bid ten minutes before the deadline. Smooth.

Dave Korhonen also sort of apologized to me when I talked to him about doing this work on these new buildings. He explained that the codes had changed a little over the last decade making it justifiable to replace ten year old equipment.

Solar Power in our future

Here’s an interesting graph that shows when solar energy will be competitive with fossil fuel generated energy. Its almost competitive now in Italy and many more places will find it competitive by 2020. Best to keep in mind however, that Solar generated electicity isn’t likely to ammount to more than 3 or 6% of our total electric needs. Here’s the story.

http://gristmill.grist.org/images/user/8/mckinsey_solar_competitiveness.jpg

Councilor Anderson apologizes

For being a little hot headed to a supporter of Councilor Krause’s motion to put the Red Plan up for a referendum saying in part:

While I stand by my comments in my previous e-mail, I want to apologize as I think my tone was less than
professional and not very sensitive. Upon reflection, I realized that I let [my] emotions get the best of me. This is an emotionally charged issue, and one that I’m on your side about. I just feel frustrated that the school district has acted in the manner in which they have.
.

Due Process denied – the 14th Amendment

The last post hinted at a possible civil rights issue that voters and possibly the courts may have to face. I’ve been making inquiries about it. Already the ACLU has indicated that while it is too big for their plate they might be willing to offer an Amicus brief should someone bring the issue to court.

Here’s how I put it to them when I requested they consider coming to Let Duluth Vote’s aid.

The Duluth School Board has been given the go-ahead by the Minnesota Dept of Ed. to levy to build the biggest school building project in state history ($293 million – $407 million including interest) and to do so under new found statutory authority so that it can proceed without offering the bonding for a public referendum. This has caused a year-long controversy and several legal challenges have been considered relative to integration laws (The new District will drop its current integration plan while dividing the District into two halves with dissimilar racial makeups)

There is also a possible violation of environmental rules, and possibly issues concerning undue influence given to the project’s construction manager, Johnson Controls Inc. These issues while serious may not be of interest to the ACLU. However, there is one serious civil rights concern. We believe that proceeding without an election is a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment regarding voting rights.

While recent changes (over the past 20 years) have given all Minnesota state school board’s the authority to levy for certain kinds of building projects without resort to a referendum the School Boards of three cities are given extra authority to bypass voters. This is unequal treatment. The three school districts in question are Minnesota’s three “Cities of the First Class.” They are Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.

About 15 years ago two of the cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, were given special statutory authority to levy without referendums after state legislators in the metropolitan area grew fearful that voters might not vote for school building projects. Duluth was not given special treatment in this way.

However, the Duluth School Board’s lawyers made use of three separate state statutes to find a similar authority for Duluth’s School Board and the Minnesota Dept. of Education conceded this new understanding of the law. We assume that this new found levying authority applies to Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Duluth.

The special statute written for Minneapolis, as amended, gives it the right to levy $15 million dollars annually for school building projects. Minneapolis has four times as many students as Duluth. This new found authority greatly expands this taxing authority for all the cities of the first class. Duluth’s School Board has begun levying taxes for its building plan that will average $20 million annually. This is a much greater per student taxing authority than either Minneapolis or St. Paul Boards have enjoyed up until now. If Duluth can levy four times as much per student than Minneapolis was permitted to levy; then under the new application of the law Minneapolis should be able to levy about $60 million annually without going to the voters. This potential levy authority strikes us as so excessive as to be clearly beyond the legislative intent of the original law drawn up for Minneapolis. The laws that apply to Duluth’s school district now apply to all three Cities of the First Class vastly increasing their taxing authority.

The reaction in Duluth has been predictable. It is estimated that between 60% and 75% of the population is outraged. This has not stopped the School Board despite countless appeals to compromise or scale back the building program. There is no school board election until next year so there is no electoral remedy available to voters to stop the building project. This can only be accomplished through a legal challenge.

The use of these laws (one of which ironically was put in place to help fund districts which were implementing integration programs) makes a clear distinction between voters in Cities of the First class and all other Minnesota voters. Rural and suburban voters retain their right to vote on excessive or poorly thought out building plans while voters in the Cities of the First Class have lost this right.

There is at least one other ancillary issue. There are several townships that are part of the Duluth School District but not part of the City of Duluth. Their voters have been denied a vote on Duluth’s School referenda under these same statutes even though they are only meant to apply to Cities of the First Class.

Who will replace Mike Jaros?

Representative Mike Jaros who’s 34 year legislative career was capped by his inability to protect his constitutents from the rapacious Duluth School Board has called it quits. This last session may finally have burned Mike out. Immediately several notables announced their interest in replacing Mike including City Council Chair Roger Reinert and AFSCME rep Marsh Stenereson.

I wonder whether a promise to pick up Mike’s failed legislation to require a vote before continuing with the Red Plan could become an issue in that race. The legislation that Mike originally championed could still bring about a vote. Only about ten million of the $293 million in Red Ink spending will have been consumed by the time the legislature convenes in January of 2009. Since the School District is now keen on expediting their spending to prevent a new School Board from stopping the plan the public might be looking for another opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

I think any candidate who picked up that monkey wrench would find great favor with the voting public. The same thing might happen in the eastern legislative district represented by Tom Huntley an opponent of a referendum and a strong supporter of the Red Plan. Tom doesn’t mind that Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul voters have fewer voting rights than all other Minnesota citizens. Only citizens in Minnesota’s “Cities of the First Class” are now denied the opportunity to vote on grandiose buildng plans offered up by runaway school boards. I think there might be a serious legal issue here. More on this later.

2011

This document shows that the School Board intended to borrow an additional $90 million in 2011. Now, to avoid the election of a school board hostile to the Red Plan Dr. Dixon has announced that the borrowing will take place next year in 2009 before a new board can be elected. That’s not his excuse, of course. His Business Director, Bill Hanson claims that the reason for moving the borrowing (and attendant taxes) up is because bond rates are so favorable now.

http://www.letduluthvote.com/Faribault%20PDFs/NorthlandSecurity15pct.jpg

For a full size image check out the Let Duluth Vote site: here

The document above has been color coded by Let Duluth Vote so that you can see when the borrowing was originally planned. 2008 borrowing is in the pink border. 2011 borrowing is surrounded by the blue box but will now be pushed up to 2009. I suspect that this bonding was originally postponed to make a taxpayer backlash less likely but now the current Board will feel the full fury of a Red Plan tax revolt. In fact, the 2011 borrowing was so well hidden that even Nancy Nilsen, the Chair of the School Board, was unaware that further borrowing for the Red Plan would be necessary.

Mother of all Rubber Stamps

I called School Board member Gary Glass to tell him that the Superintendent had announced that the District was moving up its $90 million bond issuance by three years. Gary hadn’t been told.

In my day any superintendent who hadn’t consulted with the School Board before making an announcement of this magnitude would have been beaten to a bloody pulp by the Board. But not this Board. This Board is the Mother of all Rubber Stamps.

JCI in Rochester

A tidbit from the Rochester Post Buletin. The School Board didn’t like the change in risk:

However, during a project kickoff Jan. 18 for the participating districts, Rochester board members and district staff learned that Johnson Controls changed the funding strategy for the development. One of the reasons, the company said, was to reduce financial risk for the school districts.

That caused concern because the company originally said there would be no risk with the initial funding model using federal Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, board member Cris Fischer said during a school board study session Tuesday.

Rallying the Dixonites

This op ed piece in the Trib’s Business North Section is likely part of the drum roll to support the Red Plan and the Promise that requires an operational levy to pass. Frankly I don’t disagree with very much of what its author, Rob West, said. For instance how can you argue with this:

“…we’re attracting young entrepreneurs who start businesses as well. Many are attracted by the quality of life we enjoy. Many come for an excellent two- or four-year education and stay. They find good jobs, pay taxes and raise their families. All the foregoing contribute to the economic prosperity we all enjoy. But make no mistake: Each is concerned about the future of our public schools.”

But Mr. West dismisses as divisive people who have complained about the theft of their vote and the excess of this spending and also the threat to the financing of the classrooms which comes with the likely defeat of an operational levy. Mr. West doesn’t see the forest for the trees. He sees the pretty trees (the new buildings) but doesn’t see that DDT is killing the animals.

I don’t know how many people will read Mr. West’s piece but a lot will read the very different letter to the editor in the same paper by Cathy Wright. She writes:

“I tried calling School Board members to get the following questions answered, but I wasn’t given what I would consider honest, straight answers from the people who so forcefully are supporting the red plan.” This is a common complaint.

You can also read Mr. West’s piece on the Duluth Business blog

Sneaking in a bond

Oh this is rich.

I caught the last ten minutes of KDAL’s radio show and emailed in this question for Dr. Dixon:

“The final $90 million in bonding for the Red Plan was scheduled to be borrowed in 2011. But the voter uprising has evidently caused Dr. Dixon to move it up to next year so that a new school board elected next year can’t scuttle the Red Plan. Ask Dixon about that. Harry Welty”

Then I called in when the interviewer announced the phone number and asked the same question. Johnny said he’d ask the question and ask it he did.

Bill Hanson the District’s business head went on about how the bond rates are so good and that in any event if the Red Plan wasn’t built then the money wouldn’t be spent. So, I guess if the District authorizes the taxes but doesn’t spend them they will be returned.

Well, Johnny, bless his soul, then asked if there was a school board election next year and Bill conceded that yes there would be an election in November. Johnny then gave Dr. Dixon the last 35 seconds and a flustered Superintendent finished up by thanking everyone in the District for a great school year.

KDAL is the premier radio for senior citizens who want to keep up with local news. I don’t think that after spending an hour talking about how wonderful the Red Plan would be and all the plans for honoring the “Promise” that this is quite the way the Superintendent wanted his interview to end. It should keep tongues wagging.

Vic tweaks me

My old email devils advocate has sent me this intriguing blog piece by Gred Manikow a Harvard economist. I’d take some time to comment on it but I’ve just heard breaking news. Dr. Dixon on KDAL radio a few minutes ago announced that the last $90 million of bonding will be imposed on Duluth next year in 2009 rather than 2011. That way a new school board won’t be able to prevent the final financing of the Red Plan.

Councilor Anderson detests Red Plan but…

I was sent this email reply by Councilor Anderson to a critic who was obviously disappointed with Anderson’s vote on Garry Krauses’s “non binding” vote on the Red Plan.

Sir:
Perhaps you are confused. I am a Duluth City Councilor – NOT a ISD 709 School Board Member.

Let me be blunt. I find your comments ridiculous. I mean that in the most respectful way possible.

I detest this plan and the harm it will have on our neighborhoods in the core of our city, BUT the City Council cannot stop this plan.

You and others need to do a better job listening…at what point do you think a NON-BINDING RESOLUTION will halt this plan? Listen…wait for it…keep listening…NEVER!!! It was non-binding…GRANDSTANDING…that’s it.

I would love for Duluth to be able to vote…and I would vote NO, BUT, that time has passed.

Perhaps people should be more careful when they cast their ballot for school board.

I suggest YOU run for the school board or city council.

Respectfully,
Jeff Anderson

Nilsen blasts Glass – Howie Hanson unimpressed

School Board Chair Nancy Nilsen who herself doesn’t seem to quite understand the fiscal implications of the Red Plan has apparently blasted Gary Glass for not understanding them either. Howie Hanson’s website has a brief editorial comment and includes Nilsen’s piece:

Howie’s take in brief:

Judging from Nilsen’s e-mail response below, what she and the other board members fail to realize is the depth of the taxpayers resentment against the board’s actions. While she is correct about the bond funds only being eligible for capital improvements, she ignores the fact that the board will be bringing an excess levy for operating funds to the taxpayers for a vote this fall. Under the present circumstances, it will fail miserably.