I can’t give it up

I told myself over a week ago that I’d phase myself out of all the Let Duluth Vote work I’ve been doing for the past two years. Considering how busy I’ve been doing Let Duluth Vote work since that promise it looks as though I lied to myself. Self delusion is not that uncommon. Lots of folks say that they can quit smoking or gambling any time they want.

Today I spent a couple hours talking to someone I hope to convince to run for the School Board. I handed this person some recent information I got my hands on that has my blood boiling. I know this person has a big investment in public education and I have my fingers crossed that they’ll throw their hat in the ring. This District is being run into the ground. Unless its stopped ASAP it will not recover before my grandson graduates from High School sixteen years from now.

All our schools need is four competent school board replacements for the quartet up for reelection that has blindly plowed over the cliff – providing – that is, that the Red Plan construction can be halted especially at Ordean. I do not envy the new school board. They will have lots of money in the bank. But they will have a very messy cleanup. I hope JCI is required to pay through the nose for the damage their greed has inflicted on Duluth. I mean reparations over and above simply paying Duluth back that the School Board has thrown at JCI.

At tonight’s LDV meeting the taxpayer’s attorney, Craig Hunter, dropped by to give us the latest on our case. Every time I listen to him I revel at the power of his reasoning.

About those rascally Central Students

The recent letter critical of the deportment of some of Central’s freshman students was amplified by the Trib’s Editorial staff when they seconded it in an editorial. One of my regular readers sent me an email pointing out that at a raucous School Board meeting last year that was intended as something of a rally for the Red Plan there were students from another area high school whose parents were members of Move Forward Duluth and in one case a sitting, Pro Red Plan, school board member.

I hope the Trib’s editors are aware that Passion and excess can be a two-way street.

Has the EAW considered these questions?

The folks who put the EAW together for the Ordean site have minimized the problems there. Its worth remembering that they were paid by a District whose Superintendent has described the site as the “lynch-pin” of his entire building program.

Now that it is in the hands of the Duluth City Planning staff they have the responsibility to study whether there has been adequate attention addressed to the following questions. If no they should recommend that a more thorough EIS (Environmental Impact Study) be conducted.

• Loss of natural turf vegetation and replacement with impermeable artificial turf changing the soil/water relationship and dependency on subsurface moisture for existing mature ravine slope trees and the creek.
• Air pollutants created by back up, standing, waiting, idling traffic along 40th Avenue East, and the 40th Ave./Superior Street intersection, the closest streets to residential home sites.
• Extensive earth cuts exposing deeply buried clay infertile subsoil and poor growing conditions.
• Student hazard conditions created by extensive retaining wall abrupt elevation changes.
• Errant driver hazard due to close proximity of retaining wall vertical drop being so close to Superior Street.
• Where is the retention pond or other method to clean parking lot and pavement runoff including oils, fuels, salts and antifreeze pollutants?
• The question about subsoil not receiving natural moisture runoff and will this cause soil de-stabilization from clay drying and subject to cracking, causing structural damage to floors, foundations and pavements.
• Environmental impact needs to broaden to include visual impact. A large 3 story building set so close to two streets and residential homes will be visually out of scale with nearby single and two story homes. The building is so close to the corner that it restricts the view of motorists to approaching vehicles and pedestrians.
• Off-lake winds trapping and infiltrating traveling and idling bus exhaust fumes at the west south and west faces of the building.
• Extremely close bus entry and waiting lane to the west facing length of the building causing extreme noise impact and increased noise intensity thru open or closed windows on this 530 foot width of the building.
• The high density of paved and roofed areas along with impervious artificial turf will create an artificial environment that will be twice that of a similar site with the state recommended site size of 50 to 55 acres. This impact will also include reduced setbacks, noise impacts from the air handling units, parked/stopped/idling/moving vehicles, and increased traffic. The impact of a facility on such a compact site will at least double because the property is half of what it needs to be.
• There is an environmental impact on the community not knowing what the overall Master Plan, fully developed and expanded school will be. Surely the school will want in the near future to expand its sub-standard parking, add access/egress points to the school, separate vehicular student drop areas from conflicting thru-collector streets, provide on-site water management, add tennis courts, soccer field[s], softball fields, general use practice fields, and a second baseball field, and hopefully provide perimeter turf, screening and planting areas to try to blend with adjacent neighborhoods. All these environmental impacts should be fully evaluated.
• The small site causes condensed parking, setbacks, athletic fields, and reduced open space [55 useable acres recommended compared to 11 useable acres at Ordean] What this means is the condensed site will have fenced athletic fields with no unfenced, open space for neighborhoods to use for the myriad kinds of open space uses that draws people to neighborhoods. Schools should, ideally, provide multiple use areas for neighboring parents and kids to use for impromptu softball, baseball, Frisbee, flying a kite and sledding. Clearly, this half size site will be fully covered with paved parking and fenced athletic fields. There is no open space remaining for neighborhood use.
• Any adverse environmental deterioration will extend to surrounding neighborhoods causing real estate values to plummet along with tax generation.

More on punitive damages

The School District’s attorney recently sent a letter to Craig Hunter, the taxpayer’s attorney advising him that our request for punitive damages was groundless.

Mr. Hunter wrote back and rebutted her arguments. Of course, it will be up to the judge to determine which argument has more merit. The judge read our pleadings and the District’s rebuttal and is allowing the complaint to be argued at the May 22 hearing. He could have turned our motion down out of hand if had he thought the complaint baseless.

See if you can tell which letter sounds more convincing to you.

“possible monetary damages”

As I’ve explained before the Taxpayer’s suit against the District and JCI made an additional motion to request that Duluth School Board members pay punitive damages for authorizing unlawful expenditures. Rather than dismissing this complaint the Court will consider it at the May 22nd Court hearing.

One of our LDV people asked if I’d seen this portion of the Minnesota Department of Education’s guidebook on school construction. It seems to quote state law and you should note the very last sentence which I’ve bolded.

(c) Compliance Responsibilities
Decisions on school construction projects in Minnesota are a local school district and state matter, and there have been and are laws, rules, codes, standards, and guidelines governing the school construction process that go back to the 1800’s. Similarly, there are laws, rules, codes, standards, and guidelines governing the construction of homes and commercial buildings, health hospital and nursing home practices, food preparation in restaurants, purification of water, road improvements, and practices by doctors, lawyers, government agencies, and businesses. In planning, developing, and implementing school construction projects, school districts must comply with a complex variety of state, federal, and local laws, rules, and codes. It is very important that school boards employ licensed, knowledgeable, and competent persons (administrators, architects, engineers, contractors and construction managers, fiscal consultants, attorneys) to represent the school district throughout this process. The highlights of many of the laws, rules, and codes that school districts must comply with are discussed throughout this Guide. Responsible persons representing the school district must further consult building code, fire safety, indoor air quality, and other laws, rules, ordinances, and codes as appropriate. In proceeding with school construction projects, school board members must be aware of the responsibility they have to make sure that all the orders that they sign are legal; i.e., comply with all laws, rules, and codes affecting school construction projects. The drawing of an illegal order subjects school board members to legal action by an eligible voter and possible monetary damages (M.S. 123B.17).

Well which is it?

Yesterday’s Trib based its editorial on a letter from a student complaining that his Central High School Classmates behaved poorly when introduced to the students at other Duluth High Schools.

My reaction was that the student’s letter was rather courageous. On the other hand the editorial led me to wonder if the Paper’s editorial Board was going to jump on the Ralph Doty bandwagon and beat up critics of the Red Plan for being uncivilized.

But today’s paper had a story about these same student meeting and apparently getting along rather well. It made me wonder how short lived this high spirited rebellion was. Much ado about nothing I hope.

New record

Even though I didn’t post anything today until about 4:30 so that there was little new to read Lincolndemocrat managed to break another record. Today is the first day that over 200 visitors have paid it a call. I wish I’d had time to catch up with the backlog.

Look Board. It’s de plan, de plan

What had been planned as a fifteen minute power point presentation by Let Duluth Vote’s Karen Heisick and Art Johnston lasted until a little shy of ten PM. Karen concentrated on the value of smaller schools and discussed the findings of Dr. Joe Nathan. Art’s presentation described the facilities as Let Duluth Vote envisions them for the Review and Comment document.

Both our presenters were greeted, not surprisingly, by a cold silence which must have been pretty unnerving. Art repeatedly encouraged the Board to ask questions. When he was done he got them. Some were the canned questions asked earlier by Move Forward Duluth. It was nonetheless gratifying to have the entire school board paying close enough attention to ask questions.

Behind the Superintendent was the work of the District’s Print shop. They had taken two similar spread sheet versions of possible Plan B building configurations and blown them up into six foot tall billboards. Twenty minutes worth of questions repeatedly suggested that Let Duluth Vote was offering a different plan B than they described to the 3000 plus petition signers. Suddenly the District has a heartfelt desire to do justice and protect the petition signers from Let Duluth Vote.

Of course this is nonsense. The petition language is the only basis for any Review and Comment document. It was only 75 words long. Few petition signers ever even saw the spreadsheets. They just read the names of schools which would be fixed up and the price tag that was a $100 million less than the Red Plan. Let Duluth Vote is being held to a standard that permits no deviation from the spread sheets whereas the Red Plan presented to the public was taken to the state combining elements of the Red, White and Blue plans. As long as the 75 words are honored there is no problem.

Tim Grover and the Superintendent were the primary interrogators always beginning by asserting that they would take two plans to the State but then suggesting that one of the plans the wrong plan and then asking Art to explain which plan was the right plan. Had he said that one or the other was the right plan it would simply have given Red Plan supporters ammunition to discredit Let Duluth Vote.

It was evident that the Superintendent was looking for grounds to ask the State to nix Let Duluth Vote’s preferred plan.

The other significant wrangle and much more significant was Art’s complaint that District had not given basic data to Let Duluth Vote. Kerry Leider the District’s Facilities man and the Superintendent repeatedly rejected this telling Art that he had seen everything there was to see.

Art told the School Board that no self respecting engineer would commence any building project without such elementary data. It remains to be seen if the District is being honest on this point. How ATS&R will complete a review and comment without it is hard to imagine.

The Horse’s teeth

Much to my surprise last night the School Board agreed to hire the Twin Cities Architectural firm ATS&R to put together a review and comment for the Plan B Petition that Let Duluth Vote circulated over a year ago. How surprised was I? Just before the meeting I told a KDLH reporter how seriously I took the School Board when they said they were considering doing such a thing. The clip used on the evening news showed me rolling my eyes reciting the long list of roadblocks the District threw in our path right up to the eleventh hour. Now a mere month from the close of the school year and the beginning of summer construction ATS&R has three weeks to start from scratch and come up with a plan for the Dept. of Education.

I suspect some members of the Board were positively giddy at the prospect of proving me wrong by authorizing the Review and Comment. Hey! I’m cool with that!…….not that I’ve set my skepticism aside.

The original bid that ATS&R sent in was too high to suit our Administration (although six figures had been suggested to us early on as a possible expense the District would bear. Now they need it to defend themselves in court.) ATS&R’s was also the only bid. After receiving it the Administration made it clear that nothing would come of it. At some point the price was negotiated down to five figures, $70,000. The special board meeting to vote on this contract with ATS&R reps preceded the Committee of the Whole. I missed the presentation and was amazed when I realized what the Board was voting for. Only Gary Glass voted against it. He’s a skeptic too.

Its been evident from recent letters to Let Duluth Vote from the District’s Finance Director’s that the District has grown more anxious about completing the review and comment. Just why has been a mystery to us. Could the State Attorney General be prodding the District? Is this a last minute effort to win back Duluth by showing that the Board really does care? Is it hoped that the resulting Plan B Review and Comment will be panned by the Dept of Education so that the Board can be vindicated for dragging its feet?

The last possibility seems the most likely explanation but Let Duluth Vote welcomes the chance to develop our plan. Sometimes its best not to look too closely in a gift horse’s mouth.

Busy day – the lawsuit

After the interview I returned a call from our attorney, Craig Hunter, who had been on a conference call with the Judge and all the attorneys for the defendants. He was pleased to report that the Judge had granted us the right to argue our case on every motion we’ve brought to the Sixth District Court. Once again it wasn’t a very good day for the School Board.

Apparently the Judge had read all of our pleadings in advance which is not always the case. The defendant’s attorneys raised some issues but had brought no formal motions for the judge to consider. They had requested a delay for presenting the documents we had requested for discovery. They were past the deadline already but they were given a deadline. They must present the documents we requested by May 15th.

Whatever they produce is not required for our case since we already have all the documents which we feel proves that the contract between the District and JCI is unlawful. JCI may feel that way too. Mr. Hunter got the same impression in reading JCI’s reply to our complaint – “Hey, we just did what the District wanted us to do.” That should give the District cold comfort.

On the other hand that’s a pretty limp defense for a company that has executed hundreds maybe thousands of contracts with school districts. How can it seriously argue that it didn’t understand the statutes pertaining to construction contracts?

There will be no delays and our case is still scheduled for May 22nd.

Oh, Surprise! Surprise. Apparently the School Administration has been holding secret one-on-one meetings between school board members and the District’s attorneys to make sure Gary Glass is kept in the dark. How typical. I can’t off hand think of how this violates the open meeting law. School Districts are permitted to hold closed hearings over issues of litigation. Every such closed meeting I attended when I was on the school board was held will all the members of the School Board present.

I think the District is blazing new legal ground once again. I wonder what law gives them this power? Someone ought to sue their sorry behinds. Oh, I forgot. We are suing them.

Busy day Committee of the whole

Actually, this post is about my quick interview with a KDLH reporter about tonight’s Committee of the Whole meeting. She had called me just before the Zoning Board met and I thought 1PM would give me plenty of time to get back home. I was still chomping on a McDonald’s snack wrap when she knocked on the door.

It was a short interview on my sunny back patio. She wasn’t very familiar with the issues so I gave her some background on tape which she’ll have a dickens of a time pulling a sound bite out of.

I basically told her that we were happy to make the presentation to show that we had given a lot of thought to how to fix up our schools for $100 million less than the Red Plan and honor the 75 words of the petition that our plan is based upon. She asked about the alphabet plans the District talks about B and D (I’m not sure where C went) and I told her that although our Plan B had been rechristened D by the District it was entirely consistent with the petition language. I explained that because it was stretched out over ten years some portions of it might be dropped so that taxpayers could enjoy some refunds.

It remains to be seen if our current Board asks any questions of our Plan tonight. I wrote up answers to Move Forward Duluth’s seven questions but I don’t think our presenter tonight Art Johnston was very interested in them. He’s a smart cookie and will enjoy answering any questions thrown his way by the School Board. He thought the MFD questions were leading, weak and based on faulty assumptions just like I did.

Of course, I told the Reporter that as far as I was concerned the Board’s listening to us after a year’s delay and a month before they cram five years worth of construction into three. I told her it suggests that the Board is only listening to us because they Attorney General of Minnesota expects them to go through the motions.

That’s OK. I’m looking forward to the presentation.

Busy Day – Zoning

I just sat through two and a half hours of the Zoning Board meeting. The School District asked for blanket changes to the new ordinance on off site parking. It was not a good day for expediting the Red Plan.

I only stuck around through the discussion of the Ordean site which was one of three Red plan projects that the District wanted a free pass on from the Zoning Board. The District got most of what it wanted at Laura Mac except for the modest issue of putting up some kind of a sign. They had no plans for any of the sites signs so that was pulled for all school sites pending a plan.

The Planning staff made a recommendation that before granting the District approval to proceed on any site the District be required to show that it owned all the deeds to any property it needed before building. The Planning Dept also wanted a landscaping plan drawn up beforehand. Those demands both seemed sensible to me. Too bad their in such a hurry these little details fall by the wayside.

My questions were read at the beginning of the Laura Mac presentation and one of the Red Plan’s boosters, who thought my questions were directed at Laura Mac, made a point of saying I hadn’t been to any western Duluth meetings and that everyone out near Denfeld was happy with them. Of course, my questions about giving the Distric blanket approval would have applied to all Red Plan sites but I drew them up with Ordean in mind.

The Zoning Board’s hard questions on Ordean led the District’s representative to withdraw two of four requests for approvals on the Ordean site. The third on signage had already bitten the dust. The only request left for the Board to address was off site parking.

I got to speak at half past noon the last of four people. I made it clear that my questions while apropos to all Red Plan sites were drawn up with Ordean in mind. I commended the Board for treating each school site separately and wished them a chance to get a speedy lunch. Then I left before their vote because I had a press interview.


I’ve just emailed these questions to be asked at this mornings Zoning Appeals Board meeting. The Board is currently touring the Ordean site in preperation for the 10AM hearing.

Related to the first proposed change under Sec. 50-30 Location of required parking spaces in front yards; front yard permits.

Is it responsible not to set any distance requirement for the parking lots of a public school?

Could student safety be impaired?

Will giving the School District these parking lot exceptions next to an R lot decrease the value of nearby homes so that if eminent domain was to be used by the School District at some future point homeowners could face the prospect of having to accept a devalued price for their homes?

Related to the first proposed change under Sec. 50-55.1 Permitted Uses (e)

Were the distances established for aesthetic reasons or safety reasons? If for safety, why would the City relax the safety requirements for a building housing children? If for aesthetic reasons doesn’t this change have the same impact on value of nearby homes which could be later be acquired for a lower price under the powers of eminent Domain?

Related to the first proposed change under Sec. 50-55.1 Exceptions to article-height (b)

Is it considered good public policy to grant anyone unlimited authority to construct as tall a building as they want anywhere let alone in residentially zoned district?

Finally, as eminent domain could be employed by future school boards, what does the City’s Planning staff think the likelihood is that ISD 709 will want to acquire additional land in the Ordean neighborhood if the proposed Ordean High School is built?

Just cuz its legal…..

…doesn’t make it right!

I’ve described the laws used to give the District the power to steamroll the Red Plan as being a loophole. It might be more accurate to describe them as an accident. Certainly no legislator ever voted for a law intended to give Duluth the power to put the Red Plan into effect without a vote. Thus the law could be construed as legal even if it violates the spirit and intent of the legislature. Fighting this in court could be difficult and expensive because determining legislative intent is tricky.

We know Rep. Mike Jaros, a long time Duluth DFLer, feels a law he passed was abused to devise the Red Plan. Here’s a story from 19 years ago about a Republican legislator that worked vigorously to prevent the Duluth School District from pulling of a much smaller version of a no vote building plan.

This all reminds me of a horrific law I heard about on Sixty Minutes a number of years ago about cash strapped California. That state gave professional scavengers a piece of any unclaimed property they turned up while using the rest to fund the state. They permitted these scoundrels to open bank deposit boxes that had not been visited for three years. (I’ve only been to my bank box two or three times in the last ten years) Anything these scavengers found they would have to advertise in obscure legal notices (the kind I never read). When no one responds they get to keep “their share” of the loot. It adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Evidently this law has not been reformed because a google search turned up this story.

Johnson Controls reminds me of these professional scavengers ripping off the unsuspecting. It just happens that in Duluth they got caught with their fingers in the till. Too many of our local elected officials, just like the legislators in California, are giving JCI cover for this act of legalized theft.

Limiting our student’s horizons

Elourine Alspach, a retired educator/guidance counselor writes today about the jewel called the STC or the Secondary Technical Center. She begins:

Tom Boman’s common-sense solution for Duluth’s public school building plan could include another paragraph (“Take the best of two plans to make a better plan,” April 12). There is much mention of Central High School’s vast property, with enough parking and great outdoor facilities, but no one mentions the Secondary Technical Center which shares the Central campus and was built at great taxpayer expense.

My son took one of the few classes he valued at the STC. This is true of a great many of the STC students. If education is meant to be an experience which broadens one’s horizons the STC fits the bill. The Red Plan says it will create two separate STC’s, one at each remaining high school, but the effect is to limit our students horizons and kill off programming. Its currently being described as a money drain.

This writer isn’t entirely accurate. Other people have been commenting on STC programs. Here’s a nice story on one of them from Saturday’s Budgeteer.