The Reader endorsement

I called the Reader to put in an ad for Gary and me. When the publisher dropped by to pick up the check he began telling me about his candidate endorsing meeting. Before he got far I interrupted him and blurted out: “You blankety blank. You didn’t endorse me”. I think he was a bit caught off guard by my mirth. I’ve twice sat in on his endorsing meetings and know how eccentric it can be. All the other right candidates got endorsed for the school board but not me. We’ll see how bad that hurts my prospects.

On the bright side the Reader will put my last words on the Red Plan in their last issue before the election. I think it should more than make up for the endorsement.

I’ve had a hand in trying to pass a half dozen school referendums of one sort or another and I probably would have voted for the Red Plan if it had been put up for a vote. So, how could I have turned against the next best thing since sliced bread?

It began five months ago when I read that the School Board didn’t need a referendum on the Red Plan. Every time a school board member condescended to tell me that he or she was elected to make the decision my flesh crawled. That may be true for Minnesota’s city councils and county boards but it’s not been true of school boards. Then, after the Superintendent bragged that there was no way to stop the Red Plan, I began to realize that Johnson Controls lawyers may have found a way for Duluth to skip a referendum. I say, “May” because the state has delayed ruling on the loopholes JCI discovered.

Watching JCI’s sleight of hand prompted me to start asking questions. For instance: why were 1,700 high school students going to be placed on the same 27 acres that now house Ordean’s 300 junior high students? Why was there no consideration of the likelihood that angry voters would rebel next year and vote down a referendum for classroom expenses? There are no loopholes yet to deny citizens this vote. Why was there so little consideration for the health of central Duluth? And lastly, why was it necessary to tear so many schools down and build new? The average age of the schools targeted by the Red Plan is just 56 years. My house, at 93 years, is almost twice as old. One explanation for this is that the School District has neglected its schools. Hogwash!

The last time the School Board was accused of neglecting maintenance was in 1989 during the row over the defeated $55 million building referendum. When Mark Myles became Superintendent 15 years ago he instituted a ten year maintenance plan that poured roughly two million annually into the most pressing maintenance problems. We still have the ten-year plan and close to $30 million have been poured into our buildings because of it. Most of them are not new buildings but none of them are wrecks.

It’s also been argued that the Red Plan’s colossal $293 million expense is simply inflation over 1989’s failed $55 million plan. This too is nonsense. We haven’t suffered from 500% inflation over the last 18 years. If you used 2006 dollars on 1989’s $55 million plan it would only cost Duluth $90.3 million dollars today. That’s less than one third the cost of the Red Plan.

Ah, but Red Plan advocates tell us we are fools to turn down the $5 million in savings the Red Plan will give us. I don’t buy it. As a school board member for eight years I was the principal champion for closing a high school so that we could use the savings for richer programming. Never do I recall anyone suggesting that we could save much more than a million dollars annually by doing this. A million bucks is nothing to sneeze at – but one million dollars isn’t five million dollars.

Where do the Red Plan advocates get their five million dollars? Three million of it comes from cutting educational programs but we could do that without closing any buildings! One such cut of $400,000 comes from trimming elementary music, art and PE teachers. Ironically, these are positions that Duluth voters were promised when they voted for a classroom levy in 1997.

This question of savings is one of the reasons that Minnesota’s Department of Education has postponed an OK on the Red Plan. The state wanted more documentation. Gary Glass has also been agitating for more documentation for a month now. This week he was told that the savings information wasn’t available because it was in Johnson Control’s hands. I guess it’s pretty obvious who’s calling the shots in the Duluth Schools nowadays.

The Red Plan’s life began when a handful of JCI lawyers found a loophole. It developed as 34 citizens (about a third of which only showed up infrequently) studied the district and its demography. It was justified when 300 people were surveyed and asked whether they minded skipping a referendum. It was then carved into stone when a bare four-person majority of the school board decided to skip a referendum. The sixty-thousand of us who would pay the taxes were not to be consulted. Such is the loophole discovered by JCI’s lawyers.

Lawyers live on loopholes but a school board lives on the public’s trust.

Let Duluth Vote!