What could have been and what will be

Today the DNT’s editorial board asked the question: Should Duluth have gone to 1 high school? They answered that momentous question with a big shrug and the obvious conclusion its too late now! That’s a pretty safe editorial.

I lived through much of that debate before the Red Plan decided our fate. My conclusions at the time were these:

1. Going to one high school wasn’t politically feasible and might only prove temporary if the city started growing again.

2. Two high schools would be the right size for Duluth but, to lesson the East West divide, we should stick with the historic Central High School as our eastern School and leave Denfeld alone because West Duluth would raise hell otherwise. I thought eastern Duluth would be more pliable politically if it got a great new high school out of the deal.

For me item two had a couple of conditions.

Condition 1. This would be a financial savings that would permit more spending on the classroom. The estimate twelve years ago was that by having two high schools we could save $1.2 million. I didn’t intend to give that back to taxpayers. I wanted it spent in the classroom. Instead, under Dr. Dixon, we leapt to the conclusion that all our schools were crap and decided to raise nearly half a billion dollars to replace or fix them all.

Condition 2. I wanted to treat the two high schools as one school and encourage travel between the schools so that kids at East (Central High) would need to go to Denfeld at some point to take classes not offered at East (Central High) and vice versa. This was my attempt to solve the vexing problem of bridging the east/west divide. Both schools would have their separate sports teams and identities but otherwise they would serve as two campuses of the same school system.

I called this the Zenith Plan and it never had much of a chance at winning political approval. If you read it now (I put it on my old website) you will see it was primarily aimed at saving our elementary schools which we had been poaching children from to fill our middle schools which we had already poached ninth graders from to fill our three high schools. You will also note I don’t mention the idea of treating the two remaining schools as two campuses in this early stripped down proposal. I started talking about that later.

I returned to my idea of two campuses a month ago when a flock of Denfeld students showed up at our Board meeting to decry the shrinking course offerings because of their falling enrollment. BTW. Much of that enrollment decline is the loss of students to Proctor, Hermantown and other schools. I mentioned this concern about losing students in the Zenith Plan but no one seems to have given the threat much thought during the development of the Red/White and Blue Plans.

Tough luck Trib. The Red Plan is not over. We are still in the acrimonious phase of the Red Plan. And you are writing editorials about what might have been. It saved no money and that is what Art and I want to understand. We simply cut staff and crammed more kids into classes to pay for the bonds. Had it saved money (like simply closing one high school) we could have added staff and reduced class size. Sadly any savings through new staffing efficiencies or energy savings were grossly outweighed by additional borrowing and lost revenues from fleeing students (and just maybe billing by JCI that was never admitted to from the outset). All these fiscal consequences necessitated staff layoffs.

I had a cordial meeting with the Superintendent yesterday for the first time since I met with him prior to the alarming investigation of Art Johnston. Since that last meeting was followed by such a hideous miscarriage of justice I might be forgiven for taking my time to set up another meeting.

The Superintendent led me to believe that it was the School Board not the Administration that should be held responsible for the current investigation by attorney Mary Rice. He may not have said it in so many words but that is what I drew from our conversation. I explained that what Art and I had been trying to do is figure out how (if not why) our District finances took such a tumble. A couple of paragraphs ago I explained my theory – unrealized savings. I’d like to back it up with data or have my theory debunked. The Superintendent also led me to believe that it was the School Board and not the administration that stood in the way of this line of inquiry. CFO Bill Hanson made much the same comment to me months earlier. He told me I’d have to get a majority of the Board’s OK to proceed with that data search.

The Board was not so inclined a month or two ago when Art and I made inquiries about “soft costs,” reimbursables and change orders that were not voted on by the Board as a whole. The later two issues have been explained away but it wasn’t until the State Auditor’s report that Art was given definitive information about the total “soft costs.” As Art deduced they totaled $84 million invisible dollars paid to Johnson Controls and other co-managers of the Red Plan. Seven years ago they were only supposed to total $33.4 million but back when I was running to slow down the Red Plan the Administration denied that any of these Red Plan costs would end up in JCI’s pockets. JCI was only supposed to be paid $4.5 million.

Art and I are determined to learn how this 14% turned 27% of Red Plan costs were paid out and to whom. We want to know how much JCI, Bossardt and Krause Anderson were paid for program management. Yes, this is old news but its news that has yet to be reported. Possibly JCI, Bossardt and Krause Anderson will refuse to explain how these payments got spent despite Minnesota’s statutes that clearly state that these are public dollars. If they choose to hide this information that’s not the School Board’s fault. But it is the School Board’s fault if they refuse to ask for this information. I would hate to think that our School Board is more interested in conducting an inquisition on an inquisitive Board member than simply asking these contracting behemoths for some transparency in how they spent $84 million precious local tax dollars. For crying out loud, had that money been used in the classroom we wouldn’t have had to cram ten more children into our classrooms.

I think I mentioned in a post a couple weeks ago that on a rainy morning a few days after the inquisition was approved I hand delivered a four-page history of Art’s (and his significant other’s) persecution. I explained to my fellow board members that I would need to mail it out to raise money for Art’s legal defenses. It makes for pretty compelling reading. So far Art’s legal costs are close to $2,000. Yesterday, I told the superintendent that I planned to ask the School Board to cover Art’s costs should Mary Rice’s report indicate that there is no there, there. Once again the Superintendent indicated that this was a decision for the School Board. I can’t deny that.

By the Superintendents reckoning it’s the School Board I need to be worried about rather than the Administration. Hmm. Maybe. I’m not so sure that the letter I delivered to the Board demonstrates administrative neutrality. If I should mail it out and or put it on my blog I suspect it will stoke some serious community outrage and do much to cover Art’s legal expenses. Of course, outrage may not help us find a solution to our massive classroom overcrowding. (I’d prefer to have JCI help us out with that.) However, if the allegations against Art are batted away but he’s left holding the bag for the costs of defending himself against scurrilous accusations I’ll be outraged. I also be miffed it if the Board continues to resist Art’s and my questions about our District’s finances. It will be fascinating to see how our Board acts with these most unexpected distractions as we close in on a new school year.

I’m sure my eight loyal readers will be every bit as fascinated as I am to see how this soap opera turned saga unfolds. Will the School Board pull in its horns on its persecution of grumpy Art Johnston? Will the School Board smile on requests for financial data? Will the editors of the Duluth News Tribune have more cause to editorialize about the School Board’s dysfunction? Will anyone ever see the forest (our children and our schools) for the trees (the school board’s petty squabbles)? Only time will tell. Que Sera Sera!