Damning Letters-to-the-Editor

In addition to the headline Dr. Dixon could not have liked reading two letters to the editor in the paper today:

Marcia concluded:

And now a bit of advice:

The district should forget the strategy sessions and the big public relations plan to sell the operating levy referendum this fall. Duluth citizens will have an opportunity to vote and will voice their anger and disgust with the administration, School Board loyalists and Johnson Controls.

Keith added:

I am the parent of a former Lincoln Park middle-school student. It is my belief the reason for closing that school was heat. Duluth School Superintendent Keith Dixon and the School Board were getting too much heat for the red plan. So they used the oldest political trick in the book: When the voters are angry over something elected officials have done the elected officials choose a segment of the populace and put the screws to it. Then the general public feels a little vindicated, and it gives the elected officials time to catch their breath to continue the fight.

It worked. Before the closing of Lincoln Park, I saw a minimum of one letter a day in the Readers’ Views on the subject. Afterward, it dwindled to one a week or less.

What Dr. Dixon is saying

A friend heard Dr. Dixon on radio this morning. He is busy doing damage control in the wake of the AG’s opinion.

This is what she reported Dr. Dixon is saying:

He will take Plan B into consideration but they have been listening to the community and believe they have the best solution. (I hope he “listens” to the results of the fall operational levy.)

He asked rhetorically “What if it is equal to or greater than our [the Red] plan?” (according to who I wonder?)

He will move forward now anyway with the Red Plan. We need to build schools faster to save money. (In other words he will speed up the building of the Red Plan before he can be stopped.)

He believes the ballot could come late winter or spring. (By which time he can embark on more Red Plan construction before the referendum results derail it.)

These are challenging times with infrastructure needs. (Something has to be done – might as well be the Red Plan)

He said the State might not let our suggested building improvements go ahead because it is not cost efficient in these older buildings and there are acreage issues (Maybe, maybe not. As to acreage, its the District that has chosen to build a high school with insufficient acreage).

When asked who pays for the the Let Duluth Vote Plan’s development and presentation to the State Education Department he said that JCI spent a lot of money and they will see if the SD has the resources internally but he “doesn’t have a clue at this point.” (In other words, JCI doesn’t want to pay and neither does the District)

The SD will bear the cost of the special election. (a special referendum could have been avoided had the School Board simply put the levy question on the ballot this November)

He said there is a lot of overlap with Plan B and Red Plan. (Well duh! Let Duluth Vote was bending over backwards to offer the School Board an acceptable compromise)

He made it sound like LDV needed to write up a detailed plan, submit it to the District which would then send it to the State Dept. of Education. (“Not our problem.”)

When asked what he thought should be done if 75% of the people want something different than the Red Plan, he reluctantly acknowledged he would have to listen to the political winds. (I’ll believe that when I see it)

The Board’s fallible lawyers

The School Board tells us that their lawyers have confirmed the novel interpretation of the law which permits them to build the Red Plan without a referendum. Are their lawyers right?

Their lawyers also told them that the petition Let Duluth Vote turned in was invalid. The Minnesota Attorney General has just said the District’s lawyers are wrong.

Maybe its time we tested the lawyer’s initial advice which allowed the School Board to steamroll the public. They’re not always right.


Drum-roll Please!
The Minnesota Attorney General has ruled that the second petition gathered by Let Duluth Vote is valid.

There will be a referendum but it is too late for it to be placed on this November’s ballot. Had the Duluth School Board ever shown the slightest interest in the feelings of the people of Duluth this referendum would have been unnecessary.

The vote will be advisory. The School Board will not be required to honor it. It will be too expensive for some voters. Many of the Let Duluth Vote folks were not very happy with it but it was offered as a compromise to the School Board on the Red Plan. The School Board foolishly ignored it. Spent oodles of money on lawyers – again – to kill it. The Attorney General wasn’t impressed.

Most importantly this decision may finally wake the School Board up out of its Dixon administered, kool aid stupor. The District will have to design a new plan which follows the parameters of our petition language and offer it to the state for the Department of Education’s review and comment. If they had done this earlier in the year they might not have offered up a very serious plan. Now they have little choice but to do this seriously and ask for Let Duluth Vote’s help.

Because the vote will be advisory, even if it passes, a building plan that is both different from the petition language and the Red Plan could be fashioned. Whatever plan is finally created it could be much more reasonable and finally take into account such issues as transportation and desegregation which were ignored by JCI. It might even mean that the District can sever its relationship with JCI and escape their greedy 18% take of the bloated Red Plan. This is a very good day for Duluth.

The Ruskie’s started it

I was wrong. The Russians started it.


“Yes,” he said. “Absolutely. We’ve been trying to tell the world about this for months. If you go back and look at the archives you’ll see plenty of calls from the Georgian government saying they’re really worried. Even some Russian commentators agree that this is exactly what happened. Don’t forget, they sent in a lot of irregulars, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians, Ingush – basically thugs. Not normal Chechens or Ingush – thugs. Thugs out for a holiday. Many Western camera crews were robbed at gunpoint ten meters from Russian tanks while Russian commanders just stood there smoking their cigarettes while the irregulars…that happened to a Turkish TV crew. They’re lucky to still be alive. Some of the Georgians were picked up by the irregulars. If they happened to be female, they got raped. If they happened to be male, they got shot immediately, sometimes tortured. Injured people we have in hospitals who managed to get out have had arms chopped off, eyes gouged out, and their tongues ripped out.”

A small irony

In the Walk Down Memory Lane post I linked to an old column I wrote called “Liar liar pants on fire.” It was about how I broke a promise not to raise taxes.

There is one interesting detail I didn’t mention in that column. I was coerced to make that promise by my buddy, Tim Grover, who was then a tax phobic conservative. He wouldn’t go along with the 1997 operational levy without a fight unless all the other school board members promised not to raise property taxes over and above those approved by the voters. Tim and I used to joke about how I proved I couldn’t be trusted. He’s not the Board member who sent me email.

Today our roles are reversed. Tim is supporting the bank busting Red Plan (Because he thinks it can’t be stopped and he wants to save what little is left of public schools in his District) and I am the tax fighting maniac.

A good question

Karen asked me this question this morning. I gave her a long tortured theoretical explanation. She scratched her head then asked me again. You know, the simplest questions are some of the best. I’d like the newspaper to ask Dr. Dixon or Bill Hanson for an explanation.

“Sorry to ask again. But since I am confused, no doubt my question is not stated well.

Why is the district selling bonds for the entire amount of plan if there will be savings and the plan will only amount to about $125mil, not $250?

And, if the district does see the projected $5.3 mil/yr savings (eventually)where does that amount go? If they pay off the bonds we should see a reduction in our property taxes.

I know I am missing something. (I do not believe there will be a savings, but I want to call them on this.)
Thanks, Karen”

Here’s my inadequate reply:

“We all are missing something. I guess the answer to the first part of the question is “insurance.” Surely if the plan was only going to cost a guaranteed $125 million that’s all they would need to bond for. If they have doubts about the savings then it requires a cushion. In this case a very big cushion.

As to your second question. Search me. But Rxxxxxx and Kxxxxx have been making calculations showing that JCI stands to earn over $55 million. That would account for almost half the extra.”

Walk down memory lane

As I was poking around for documents from the 2001 era referred to in the post about our disingenuous School District website. I found this old column of mine written the last week I served on the School Board. It hearkens back to a time when I could still call myself a Republican in good conscience. It is interesting in light of our Governor’s current status as a possible Vice Presidential nominee. It also refers to a promise I made to help pass the 1997 operational levy – a promise which the column acknowledges I broke.

The disingenuous District Website

This information from the School District’s webpage explaining the need for the levy is woefully incomplete:

“Does the school district get most of its income from property taxes? No, the district gets most of its funding from the state (about 70%). When the property tax system was reformed by the state legislature in 2001, local property taxes were lowered by removing a portion of the school district levy from property tax bills. In Duluth, the local school district levy was reduced from over $23 million to $8 million per year. In 2008 the local levy continues to be lower than it was in 2001. Here’s where the money comes from:
70% State of Minnesota
16% Local property tax levy
10 % Federal Government
4% Other local sources (lunch fees, activity fees, etc.)”

REALITY CHECK – The state poured more money into schools in 2001 so property taxes could be lowered. As this says, Duluth’s school tax levy fell from $23 million in 2001 to $8 million in 2002. The Red Plan has undone this reform. From the Duluth Trib, Dec 11, 2007:

“The district is proposing to raise its levy 7.7 million, or 56%, next year, from $13.8 million in 2007 to $21.5 million in 2008.”

REALITY CHECK After the State reduced our taxes from $23 million to $8 million the Red Plan raised it again from $13.8 million to $21.5 million. And those local property tax increases will only grow. The District webpage doesn’t tell you that another third of the Red Plan has yet to be levied. In fact the District is racing to levy another $90 million to finish off the Red Plan. This means that local taxpayers will be paying far more than ever for their schools. The operational levy will add to the local tax burden. The operational levy should have been the top priority not building. Here are two news stories that followed the failure of the 2001 levy in Duluth. (seven period day) (teacher layoffs)

Here’s more from the District website:

Is the district receiving more money through local property taxes than it used to?
The district collected less in property taxes in 2008 (including costs for the Long Range Facilities Plan) than it did as recently as 2001. Even though the last few years have seen a modest increase in the amount of property tax revenue collected for schools due to the increase in property values, the district is still receiving 6% less in property taxes than it did in 2001. As property values rise, the state is reducing state aid and expecting school districts to make up the funding through increases in local property taxes. It would be truthful to say that schools are getting more funding from property taxes but because of the corresponding reductions in state aid, the overall result is another “wash” for districts.

REALITY CHECK “It would be truthful,” but it would also be highly misleading. After plunging from $21 million to $8 million the Red Plan has completely blown away the 2001 reform so that with the Red Plan the Duluth School District levy is now a mere 6% what it was before the 2001 reform. We will soon be taxed even more than we paid in 2001 to run the School District.

Actual Ballot wording

This will take you to the District’s information about the operational levy. The following is the wording of the levy.



The existing levy referendum authority for Independent School District No. 709, Duluth, is expiring in 2008. The School Board has proposed to renew its expiring general education revenue of $365.60 per pupil. The proposed referendum revenue authorization would be applicable for five years unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law.

YES____ NO____ Shall the renewal of the referendum revenue authorization proposed by the Board of Independent School District No. 709 be approved?


Provided that Ballot Question No. 1 is approved, the Board of Independent School District No. 709, Duluth, has proposed to increase its general education revenue by an additional $334.40 per pupil for a total of $700.00 per pupil. The proposed referendum revenue authorization would increase each year by the rate of inflation and would be applicable for five years unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law.

YES____ NO____ Shall the renewal of the referendum revenue authorization proposed by the Board of Independent School District No. 709 be approved?


Provided that Ballot Questions No. 1 and 2 are approved, the Board of Independent School District No. 709, Duluth, has proposed to increase its general education revenue by an additional $500.00 per pupil for a total of $1,200.00 per pupil. The proposed referendum revenue authorization would increase each year by the rate of inflation and would be applicable for five years unless otherwise revoked or reduced as provided by law.

YES____ NO____ Shall the increase in the referendum revenue authorization proposed by the Board of Independent School District No. 709 be approved?

The bonafides of the Wheeler Critic

I had no idea whether the fellow criticising the Wheeler site for being on a granite hillside knew what he was talking about. Seems he does. Kent Worley knows him and told me:

“Good for you getting the John S. letter in print. It’s good to see people from various parts of town share their information. John was in the Planning & Development office at City Hall for years. They had looked at that Wheeler site for something the city was considering, but abandoned it after it revealed the shortcomings that John points out.”

The suspicious public – The sneaky Board

I’ve been inundated with email from people asking me the same question I’ve been getting from folks on the street. Is the School Board going to offer a trick levy question to fool voters into giving them more operating money? Well, Its not that easy. Of the three taxing levels being offered to voters there should be both a YES and a NO voting box. For any of the three levels to pass a majority of people must vote “yes” at that level.

That will be a challenge as the Trib’s online poll makes clear. 56% of the 1200 or so people voting on that voted “no” for any increase. The most any three possible levy amounts received in the poll was a little over 22% but you have to assume that the way the question will be phrased the least objectionable amount (probably the smallest at $365/pupil unit) will get the maximum positive votes. That would be about 43% which is about how many people voted for the operational levy that failed in 2001.

My guess is that this is very optimistic. Readers of the online Trib are likely to be much younger and thus more inclined to vote for a levy. This is a town with a great many people on fixed incomes. Many more of them will vote no. Besides, the controversy in 2001 paled before the anger brought about by the Red Plan. Many people are eager to teach the School Board a lesson.

There is, however, one thing the Board can do to improve the chances that at least the smallest amount gets passed and they discussed it at length at the last school board meeting. Because the $365/per pupil level is already being levied having been OK’ed by voters in 2003 a new state law allows the Board to include the phrase: “this will not increase your taxes” beside that amount. To use this phrase the Board had to forego a slightly larger figure that would have also given them an inflationary increase. They were prepared to lose to inflation because they didn’t dare alert voters that the inflationary increase would cause an increase in their school district taxes.

Reinert says School Board aduquate even if Red Plan make referndum faily and emiminate schools

Roger Reinert, who is thin skinned about the spelling of his own name shows he doesn’t much care how you spell anything else out – even the Red Plan. This is his reply to Progressive Action’s question about the Red Plan. He’ll let it stand.

“I support better and more aduquate funding of education for ISD 709 and across Minnesota. That’s the real issue at stake here. The operating levy for ISD 709 will likely faily this fall and that will mean cuts to programs and staff. It’s time we get back to a Minnesota that supports strong public education across the state, and not just in weathly districts.

I am not a fan of the Red Plan. It emiminates all the schools in the central part of town where I live. However, I do believe the school district needed to adopt some plan, and should have done so a decade ago. Local elected officials these days are having to go it alone and make very tough decisions. I respect the authority and responsibilities of all local elected officials, including School Board Members, and am not interested as a Legislator in micromanaging their authorized duties.

However, I would sponsor legislation requiring signioficant bonding comittments outside of normal operations by any local government to go to a non-binding referndum. We did this with the DECC project and the required sales tax. As A Councilor I voted for the referendum.


Wheeler Middle School disaster in the making?

This recent letter to the School Board sounds pretty important. I doubt that they will pay any attention to it. It begins:

Dear School Superintendent, School Board Members, School Administrators, and Johnson Control.

I have been somewhat disturbed with the school announcement of putting a middle school above Wheeler field due to the problems the site will present. I grew up on 34th Ave West and Second Street until my college years. My life included sports at Wheeler field in all seasons. This makes me very familiar with the proposed site and the conditions surrounding the site. It is not expected that you are aware of the site conditions so I would like to make you aware of them. I suggest each person take a lawn chair and spend part of a day at the proposed site to witness what I am about to tell you.

Read the whole thing for an eyeful.

JCI’s guarantee

A friend sent me this text from the JCI website I’ve inserted a couple comments in the brackets []:

Better surroundings mean better educational opportunities.

A comfortable, healthy, safe environment has been shown to enhance student performance, and help attract and retain the best teachers. [especially when it leads to empty schools and laid off teachers] Johnson Controls has the expertise and technology to improve the learning environment and support your teaching and staff requirements. And we can help optimize maintenance staff productivity and facility operations. As a result, you can better position your schools to succeed in an increasingly competitive K-12 marketplace. Whether you’re updating older buildings, or building from the ground up, Johnson Controls can provide quality learning environment solutions that are right for you.

How to do that on a limited budget is your challenge. [But limiting your budget is about the last thing you can expect from our Red Plan]That’s where Johnson Controls can best serve you. We offer proven budget solutions by using the savings that improved facilities generate to fund improvements. And we can help you generate positive publicity by educating the community on your commitment to being fiscally responsible. [And we sure have been a big success for the Duluth School District] In fact, schools that we work with are being nationally recognized through the federal programs. We also provide energy education and school-to-work programs correlated to meet curriculum standards.

Energy Performance Contracting in Education

When it comes to educational environments, Johnson Controls experience is unmatched. In fact our founder, Warren Johnson, was an educator himself who created the first electric thermostat to control the comfort in his classroom. [Remember that thermostat we put in Duluth’s old Adams school in the 1900’s? Why that shows our ongoing commitment to making money in Duluth.] From elementary schools to colleges and universities, we create environments that support student achievement and learning. Performance contracting provides a way to create quality learning environments without shifting resources in your budget. [And when you have to cut $11 million dollars from your budget next year you will especially appreciate all of the energy savings we’ve arranged for you.]

The concept behind performance contracting is simple: install energy-efficient building systems that allow you to save money through reduced energy use and lower facility operating costs. Then leverage the savings to pay for the improvements over a specified period of time. Johnson Controls guarantees the savings and assumes the burden of performance. The result is guaranteed savings and an improved learning environment. [Of course, our guarantee doesn’t include getting your money back if things don’t pan out.!]