Spelling Bee

I was the pronouncer for the City Spelling Bee this morning. I’ve done it most years since 1997 and have done all the larger Regional Spelling Bees since about that time. We’ve been losing participants because of tough times and the growing charges levied against participating schools.

Your world is “insolvency.” Because of fiscal imprudence the school district is facing almost certain insolvency. Insolvency.

Salaries of “outstate” Superintendents

The person sending me this chart also sent me charts for principals and teachers. The chart showing teacher’salries ranked ours in Duluth as the second highest among outstate teachers. The sender also had this to say about charts:

District comparison. Feel free to send on. NOTE THAT THESE NUMBERS ARE 1-1/2 years old. THESE NUMBERS DON’T INCLUDE HEALTH AND SS BENEFITS. Everyone was given a 1.5% pay hike and another percent or so for health benefits. There are no co-payments and the District pays for 100% of premiums and dental.

Imagine the pay increase we could offer our remaining staff if we put 100 kids in a classroom!

Timberjay calls for legislative fix for JCI’s villainy

The Trib could learn a thing or two from the Timberjay.

We’ve seen too many examples already where school boards and taxpayers have been taken for a ride. In Duluth, the controversial Red Plan, developed by JCI, has divided that city and will ultimately cost taxpayers more than $300 million. In the St. Louis County School District, Johnson Controls exaggerated savings stemming from their proposed school district restructuring plan, in order to sell a $78.8 million bond measure from which JCI stands to reap nearly $12 million. And in the community of Paynesville, in central Minnesota, what began as a $100,000 steam boiler replacement morphed into a $16 million capital project, one that has now embroiled that school district in a growing controversy of its own, thanks again to JCI.

Swimming in the Red Sea

No wonder Tim Grover had Loren Martell put in handcuffs. I’m sort of amazed the streets of Duluth don’t look like the streets of Cairo today.

School Board member Judy Seliga-PunykoÂ’s biggest role in the Red Plan was as an aggressive advocate for building swimming pools, at a cost, IÂ’m told, of some $18 million plus interest. Our school district is spending this kind of money during the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression and while it is letting go dozens of teachers.

Money back

Yesterday as I was chipping away at my snow sculpture a fellow walked up and handed me back the refund check I’d sent him for my unwitten expose of the Red Plan. Today shortly after an outraged phone call from someone who had just read about our high paid administrators the mail came and I got two more refund checks back.

It did my heart good.

We’re number one!

Today the Trib reports the startling news that contrary to our school board’s cries of impoverishment it appears we have more money per student than any other school district in Minnesota.

The Duluth school district revealed sobering news this week about the state of its 2011-12 budget, with more than $7.3 million to cut from expenses.
As part of their discussion about where to cut, School Board members and administrators will refer to a 2008-09 spending comparison that also was presented this week. It shows how Duluth stacks up against nine Minnesota districts of similar size in nearly 20 spending areas.
The data, from the Minnesota Department of Education, shows that Duluth is a top spender in several categories.

Up until now the Trib’s editorial board has sniffed that comparisons we critics have made with other school districts didn’t count because they didn’t measure up because these other Districts were smaller. That’s not true here.

Sadly the information came from the District itself and was handed over to the Trib on a silver plate. Evidently after four years of well compensated, blissful ignorance even Dr. Dixon’s fawning supporters on the Board have begun to wonder why the District is going to hell in a hand basket. The Superintendent had little choice but to show them the bigger picture to justify additional cuts. I wonder if they are as astounded as I am that Duluth outspends almost every other Minnesota School District in every category. Zounds!

The DNT seems astonished to. It will be interesting to see if they follow up today’s story tomorrow with an editorial.

And how will our new Republican legislature react to Duluth’s cries of poverty? I’d guess our cry of anguish will be greeted with the same sort of disdain that this Op Ed writer heaps on the Minneapolis Schools.

Cutting the DNT a little slack

In some ways the Trib has suffered in much the same way as the Post Red Plan Duluth School District from problems outside its control.

1. The Trib’s subscription base – elderly readers – has diminished.
2. At the same time avid young newsreaders can access the Trib’s content in a subscription free, online version.
3. Always owned by investors outside of Duluth the lastest owners have been cost conscious and editorially tone deaf. Their publishers threw themselves into the Chamber of Commerce which acts as something of a business fraternity. That fraternity fell head over heals for Supt Keith Dixon and the Trib Publishers went along for the ride.
4. The Trib has had to make draconian staff cuts eliminating a class of journalists with deep roots in Duluth and knowledge about the community.
5. The current Editorial Board inherited the previous Board’s pro Red Plan prejudice and is loath to discredit their predecessors because the public doesn’t really think of a newspaper as an entity that changes its position. The “King is dead, long live the King” is a phrase that seems apt.
6. Most importantly the push for the Red Plan is genuinely motivated by the desire to improve our community and our schools. Of course, we got into the Vietnam War to make the world a better place.

Here ends my exculpation of the Trib. The DNT is a newspaper God Dammit. They have earned my contempt and every lost subscription over the past four years.

As for their editorial policy on the Red Plan you can catch up with my thinking about that starting here.

13 people liked this comment – so far

I’m not alone and its nice to see this comment in the Trib’s online feedback page:

Elizabeth B said: On January 27, 2011 at 7:57 AM
This is “Priceless”. Just a thought – when you want to”investigate” whether something has been fabricated or to investigate to see if something is “amiss” – your only “source” should not be the public relationsperson for the School District. Katie Kaufman was the person who the DNT went to for answers and to “check facts” of the story. It is her job to paint a “rosy picture” of all that the District does – especially when things are not so rosy (7.3 million to cut) . It is her job to protect the reputation of Dixon and the rest of the mob. What did you expect from her? DNT – Start asking some hard questions and please do some true investigative reporting – you just might win back some of the readers you have lost over the last 5 years. The DNT has essentially been the District’s public relationpaper – printing whatever they say without your own investigation – and many of your subscriptions have been lost because of it.
Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

This is my take on the Trib’s editorial.

We know nothing

I strongly recommend going to the first blog post in this series and read these posts in order 1, 2, 3.

Its late. My back is sore. I have not reread or edited the last three posts. That is a recipe for messiness. When I wake up tomorrow I’ll proof read and correct them.

PS Dave, I’ve had a few more than my usual 8 visitors here today.

We know nothing Editorial, My 3rd response

The twaddle just keeps on coming:

Another fact under fire from critics is that the district did not raid teacher-salary money to help pay for the Red Plan. The claim actually isn’t completely untrue. The district did transfer money from its general fund, the same fund used to pay teachers. But the claim’s suggestion, that teachers were sacrificed in favor of facilities, remains false.

That first sentence is damnable. The editors are claiming that Red Plan critics want to raid money for teachers to pay for the Red Plan. That’s just ass-backards. Red Plan critics have been warning for years that operational expenses are being looted to pay for the Red Plan.

Describing the General Fund as “teacher-salary” money is a gross over simplification. The General Fund is the District’s operational money. It pays for all salaries and expenses to keep the District running day to day. What the Editorial is doing here is simply restating and vouching for the District’s propaganda which is then quoted in the following paragraph.

Here’s how district spokeswoman Katie Kaufman answered the bookkeeping/raiding question when asked by the News Tribune Opinion page:

“From the beginning, we’ve said that operational savings will help pay for the (Long-Range Facilities Plan) to help keep the tax impact lower. But (the savings are) from non-teacher expenses. Here’s a simplified example of how that works; the number is made up. Closing School A saves $100,000 in general fund dollars. Not from cutting teachers but from reducing administration, clerical, maintenance and other non-teacher expenses. The School Board passes a resolution … to transfer the $100,000 non-teacher savings from the general fund to the debt fund to help pay (Long-Range Facilities Plan) costs, as planned.

Some of Katie’s theoretical savings may be possible. It’s true that if you merge two schools into one you will need fewer janitors, secretaries etc. But this savings will only occur once the schools are actually open and the big ones aren’t open for prime time yet. (I’d love to have the Trib track down one rumor that some of the high schools won’t be ready for business next year – after Dixon has departed.) However, it will be a challenge for these future savings to make up for the millions of dollars of lost State aid which departs with every dissatisfied student who enrolls elsewhere or who drops out. And l repeat: the cuts Ms. Kaufman notes are being made to help pay off the bonds which allows us to pay JCI. Telling us that the Red Plan is benefiting taxpayer will be laughable if Red Plan leaves us with ruined, crippled schools.

Four years ago with JCI’s help the District told the State it would cut two million dollars’ worth of operational costs each year for twenty years starting from year one to help pay for the Red Plan. JCI and the District claimed that there would be $5 million in annual savings but the state saw through this and simply concluded that the district would trim its operational budget by two million a year to pay for the building program. I personally question whether the additional two or three million in annual savings can materialize given the District’s enrollment losses. A lot of the additional savings is supposed to come from energy savings but JCI’s new air conditioners will be energy hogs and supposed transportation cost cutting was never analyzed by JCI of the District.

Fortunately, the District’s public relations director has a simple solution which undermines her claim that the Red Plan was intended to be kind to taxpayers: “raise more taxes.”:

“Opponents want to say that because closing a school saves money from the general fund, and general fund dollars are used in part to pay for teachers, that you’re using money from teacher salaries to pay for the (Long-Range Facilities Plan). That’s not accurate,” Kaufman wrote. “The general fund savings from closing a building come from non-teacher positions. If the School Board opts not to transfer those non-teacher savings to the (Long-Range Facilities Plan), the other option is to raise more taxes to pay for the (Long-Range Facilities Plan).

Its funny but all this hand wringing is prompted by teacher cuts. You would never know that from Ms. Kaufman’s claim that: “The general fund savings from closing a building come from non-teacher positions.”

After taking no stand whatsoever on any of this, except to chide the venomous Red Plan critics, our insightful editorial board offers this lame conclusion to its oracle:

Complicated and open to interpretation, for sure. That doesn’t mean any of this is meant to suggest, not even a little, that questions shouldn’t be raised. The Duluth school district is spending our money, after all, and the district has an obligation to carefully consider and answer critics’ charges and claims – just as critics bear the responsibility for thoughtfully listening to and taking to heart the answers.

Wowser! Its OK to ask questions but don’t bother your pretty little head about the answers. Katie Kaufman keeps them all in tin cans in her office next to the Superintendent of Schools.

We know nothing Editorial, My 2nd response

The middle section just prattles on taking the School District’s side:

The district blames most of its deficit on economy-related factors, specifically flat per-pupil funding from the state, increasing expenses, delayed state payments to school districts, the state’s own budget deficit (because of the way it reduces overall funding for education) and declining enrollment.

Those are facts, the district insists, even if critics of the $293 million investment to build and rebuild the district’s aging school buildings will have none of it — no matter how it’s explained.

Maybe the reason we critics won’t take the District’s word for anything has a little to do with the Districts arrogantly turning its back on any request for compromise. Maybe its because of lies told by District officials. Maybe it has to do with the stonewalling of people, including minority school board members, who have requested information. Maybe its because the District failed to anticipate the host of predictable problems (often self generated) to keep the District on an even keel. And just maybe its because the public was misinformed about just about every aspect of the Red Plan starting four years ago. Could the Duluth News Tribune have had anything to do with that?

We know nothing Editorial, My 1st response

Here’s the Trib’s editorial today as it first wades into the deficit question:

The question gets spit out every time the Duluth school district hits a bump in the financial road. With news this week that the district’s budget deficit for next year had climbed another $1 million to more than $7.3 million, fever-pitch venom could be expected to accompany the inquiry.

Is the deficit because of the Long-Range Facilities Plan; can we blame the Red Plan for our district’s money woes?

The short answer, at least according to the district, is no.

“no?” Sadly the District’s explanation is never challenged in the editorial. At the conclusion there is a call to keep debating the question but not once does the editorial stake out the Trib’s opinion. I presume that wishful thinking has over taken the Editorial Board and they are simply hoping for the best while taking the District’s head-in-a-hole explanation at face value.

“There would be a deficit whether the plan existed or not,” …

Considering all the problems in the state of Minnesota this is probably true. But lets ask ourselves, since the Trib lacks the imagination to make any inquiry, how many other Minnesota school districts are contemplating a four-day school week? How many other Minnesota School districts have lost ten or fifteen percent of their student population to neighboring districts over the past three years? The answer is very few if any. If the Red Plan had not been inaugurated and then stage managed so incompetently we might very well be stuck with our supposedly inferior buildings but we would likely be one of the better off school district’s financially.

…planning statement released this week. “In fact, the (Red Plan) helped reduce the current projected deficit by $2 million and has helped reduce the need to cut budgets over the past three years by allowing schools to combine and (by) reducing non-teacher expenses.”

This is bullshit. We have cut teachers and other staff but we have done it to pay off the bonds which were necessary to pay JCI. Describing these cuts as “savings” is particularly galling. Because the Red Plan buildings are largely unfinished there have been no savings of consequence because of the Red Plan. Staff cuts have left crap on the classroom floors at the end of the school day because we are employing fewer janitors and classrooms are more crowded. In no way does this decision represent educational efficiency.

We have moved student populations around willy nilly with the “big fill” but once again this was simply logistics. We couldn’t mix children and pile drivers. Putting the Ordean kids in Woodland or the Denfeld students in Central was house keeping at best. At worst it was like putting scorpions in a bottle with the understaffed teachers acting as referees.

My back is killing me

After working on my Mom’s taxes I started putzing around with my snow sculpture. I had already heaped a couple mounds of snow which should have been a lot more work than trimming the heaps today. You wouldn’t know it if you could feel my back. Five hours of chopping hard snow off of those heaps took a toll. Such work has had a similar effect for years but at age sixty after abandoning regular exercise to fight the Red Plan I’m a bit of a cream puff.

I had stopped working on the sculpture about three weeks ago making use of a heat wave to pile snow onto the two heaps. The taller one was still too short so I had to mix water and snow this morning to pile it up higher. To do this I cooked the snow. First I gathered up a couple cubic yards of fresh snow from my backyard and brought it next to the sculpture. Next I poured twenty or thirty gallons of water on the pile then I shoveled more fresh snow on top to insulate the stew and let the water diffuse. I ignored this for about four hours and went to work chopping snow off other sections of the sculpture.

At about 3PM I scrapped off the insulating snow and then shoveled out the sticky snow and began adding it to the tallest pile. When I finished the tallest pile was still too short and in need of bulking up.

I could tell this because I had sculpted a small version of my planned sculpture out of modelling clay. Holding the modeling clay close to my face in front of the heaps of snow there was a mismatch. I’ll have to cook some more snow tomorrow and bulk it up some more. I’ll start the day with a couple of advils.

When I limped inside Claudia asked me if I was done. I told her it would take me at least another day to finish. That’s if I’m lucky. I hope there are no change orders. My back couldn’t take it.

While you wait for my reply

You can start with last night’s WDIO story.

Just ask yourself which items in this list is not directly tied to the decision to proceed with the Red Plan:

The District projects that 350 fewer students will enroll next year, meaning a loss of $2.3 million dollars. The district also has to come up with $2.1 million in technology expenses that were previously covered by one-time money from property sales. Increases in salaries, benefits, and pensions also account for $1.5 million dollars, and an expense of $1.2 million will go towards the Long Range Facilities Plan.

There’s no such thing as a stupid question

But there is such a thing as a stupid answer.

The DNT Editorial Board avoids offering an answer by saying nothing. It gives us the question. “Is [the] Red Plan to blame for [the] district[‘]s deficit?” The Editors do however characterize the complaints of those watching their public school system melt like the Wicked Witch after being drenched with a red tide as: “fever-pitch venom.”

Published January 27 2011
Our view: Is Red Plan to blame for districtÂ’s deficit?
The question gets spit out every time the Duluth school district hits a bump in the financial road. With news this week that the districtÂ’s budget deficit for next year had climbed another $1 million to more than $7.3 million, fever-pitch venom could be expected to accompany the inquiry.

There is much in this editorial to excite a fever-pitch in me. For three years the DNT has never acknowledged that it was in error when it let the School District inform us that Gary Glass lied about how much JCI would be paid. For the past six months it has failed to acknowledge that it swallowed Dr. Dixon’s whopper about a $32 million pot-o-gold under Dr. Dixon’s Red Rainbow.

In this our “newspaper” is not unlike a politician caught in a lie, John Edward’s for instance, denying that he’d fathered a love child. They’re not big enough to admit their complicity in the public’s fleecing, no matter how unwitting it was.

I plan to respond to this editorial later after I attend to some more serious business. I’ve got to work on my Mother’s taxes and that pile of snow outside my front door has been crying for some sculpting since December. When I do respond I hope I can spit it out without too much venom.

Spread the word, manure is good fertilizer

Anyone wishing to draw people’s attention to this blog is encouraged to link it to facebook accounts or other blogs and Internet locales. Its always nice having my eight loyal readers drop by to peruse my rants but they wouldn’t mind a little more company. Better link it up before JCI sends the Stuxnet virus to my Inbox or a cease-and-desist order from Knutson, Flynn & Deans to my letterbox.

At least there is one serious journalist in Northern Minnesota

What’s happening north of us so reminds me of Duluth’s Red Plan which justified itself by saying we would save two million a year in staff cuts years before the Red Plan buildings would be completed. There were two million in staff cuts all right but they had nothing to do with the Red Plan. Our school board simply cut staff to pay off the banks that loaned them money.

Perhaps the Duluth Schools could have weathered a two million cut in staff if everything else had gone well. That risky gamble was constantly undermined by the Board and a host of unanticipated calamities. For instance, the Board added unadvertised extras to the Red Plan like a stadium at the new Ordean High. They lost the public relations war when voters refused to vote for extra levies in the one vote the School board had no choice but to offer Duluth residents. They gave the teachers unaffordable salary raises to keep them quiet. They began losing students when the classroom programs were cut and class sizes grew. They lost millions in state revenue when students left leaving the District to contemplate even larger class sizes. The state held back on revenue because of the State’s fiscal nightmare. Now anti-tax Republicans have taken decisive control over both houses of the legislataure for the first time in 40 years.

Today’s DNT Story lists additional draconian cuts to the public school program. As they are put into effect you can be sure it will be harder than ever to retain our students.

The list of possible reductions includes:

1 The layoff of four administrators, including three assistant principals to save $487,500.
2.Reducing expenses in athletics, up to $750,000 (the district is suggesting as little as $200,000).
3.Reducing custodial services at a savings of $500,000.
4.Changing bus routes to pick up only students who live 2 miles from their school or farther.
5.Reducing special education expenses by $700,000.
6.Cutting the Habitat program for teen parents.
7.Reducing positions in media and music at middle schools.
8.Increasing class sizes by one student.
9.Moving to a four-day week.
10.Restructuring the days of elementary, middle and high schools.

And the drum beat will continue. Soon an unexpected multi-million gift from President Obama’s stimulus will run out.

To keep the public on its side the District has fed a gullible local media fantastic stories like the one about $32 millions of Red Plan savings that the School Board will be able to throw around like Scrooge McDuck in his vault of gold bullion.

If the feedback on the Trib’s Online site to the budget cut story is any indication no one much believes anything the School District has to say for itself. What’s that old saying? “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me a hundred times and I must be a graduate of your school system.”

These caustic comments suggests that the flood of lost students will continue apace along with additional revenue losses. Many of these comments are incoherent but after many years of arrogance and fiasco its hard to fault people for their apoplexy. Duluth will have to find a way to rise above this apoplexy if it ever hopes to restore health to its public schools.

JCI should give every cent it has been paid for the Red Plan back to the citizens of Duluth. And they should cart their ten million dollars worth of useless air conditioners out of town while they are at it. Maybe we can sell them on E-Bay for ten cents on the dollar.

One good thing about Fox News

David Frum surmises that by paying all the top GOP candidates big money Fox News may be holding up their announcements for presidential campaigns.

Once a candidate declares, they will be obliged to resign their jobs as media commenters. Media Matters calculates the value of airtime devoted to Fox commenters Huckabee, Palin, Gingrich, and also John Bolton and Rick Santorum at $55 million.

That does not include the value of whatever fees are paid those commenters. A lot has been said about the role of Fox in 2012. One effect could be unexpectedly perverse: a late start.

My letter

I spent the day returning the money sent to me in 2009 to purchase my book. I enclosed the following letter:

Dear Friends,

In 2009 you ordered a book I planned to write which was to be titled “The Amazing Colossal Red Plan.” As I have failed to meet the announced December 2010 completion deadline which I advertised I am tendering refunds to all the book’s purchasers.

I continue to write voluminously about the Red Plan, however, as my writing has been largely confined to the Internet (on a blog called www.lincolndemocrat.com) my ongoing thoughts and discoveries are out of the reach of many readers. Almost every jot and tittle of my writing can still be accessed Online but as I’m nearing a million words on the subject I felt they should be abridged into a book about the size of a summer read.

Initially I hoped a book could forestall the Red Plan until a vote could be taken on it. When it became apparent that nothing would stop the Red Plan I took solace in the thought that it was a subject worthy for an history. While I still believe this to be true there are two glaring problems with my being the historian. First, the story is not yet over. Second, as an opinionated participant I am hardly the objective voice one would wish to write a history.

Despite these faults I may yet try my hand at recording the story. Whether I will simply put together a representative sample of blog posts or write the story from beginning to end I do not yet know. I would like to tell the other side but as I have criticized many of my opposites this may not be possible. When the Red Plan is over I may, however, be able to coax some of the innocent bystanders to share their side. These would be employees of the School District and/or contractors who were subject to firing.

I think such a history would be more useful to people interested in public school politics than those who feel aggrieved in Duluth. But the time to write such a book seems premature.

I beg your indulgence for my failing to honor my offer and I thank you for your purchase.

Sincerely,

Harry Welty
Duluth School Board 1996 to 2004

PS. I am initially refunding all buyers $10.00 even though in some of my advertisements I asked for $20.00 in addition to donations for Vote Like It Counts. I was not able to keep accurate records of those who sent me $20 for the book but I will gladly make a full refund to those who notify me that they sent me a check for the larger purchase price. Save yourself a stamp and call my home at 218-***-**** and leave your name and address. If you do I will send you a second check to complete the refund.