Holy COW – Committee of the Whole

As we contemplate putting an end to, among other things, the Zero Hour due to an anticipated $3.3 million shortfall I’ve been noticing a lot of email, mostly from parents, decrying the potential losses. I hope they are being read by my colleagues on the Board with more attention than the email we recently received about another hot button issue. I’m a glutton for feedback and consider this blog something of a feedback loop to a more general audience.

I sent some political pointers to one of the students who wrote to me recently about zero hour. This is what I told the student to do:

Be sure to tell them [fellow students] that a push on multiple fronts eg. Letters and emails will catch more public attention. I think my colleagues on the Board would like to avoid another controversy following so shortly after the issue of the Central sale.

We have one adm leader who says of the zero hour that it is unfair “inequitable” to poorer kids who can not travel as easily to school. This is no doubt true but I would argue that at a time when we face a lot of concern about class offerings and an exit of students we have to stop the exodus first in the same way doctors at a triage unit at a battle target the most critical injuries first.

Besides this cost is almost negligible in the context of the $3.3 million shortfall we anticipate.

Email and letters to the editor. Don’t neglect these avenues of communication. School board members are susceptible to public pressure. Except for me. Too much scar tissue so that numbness has set in.

My friend from church choir who says I have a penchant for stirring the pot is undoubtedly right. He just failed to note that I’m in the soup too with all the potatoes, carrots and cabbage.

I have the sense that our Administration has neglected to inform school board members about the fiscal realities that we face. I’ve repeatedly attempted to make sense of our finances first two years ago when we approved a teacher’s contract, the negotiation of which I was prevented from sitting in on, much to my chagrin. A little after that Art and I tried to dig into the Red Plan finances in hopes of tagging Johnston Controls with some responsibility to help our District out as so many of its initial promises proved illusory. That just seemed to drive the rest of the Board to remove Art from our midst and I lost my bead on finances for the year-long fight that followed. More recently the non sale of Central has had me looking at money issues.

I prepared a document for the rest of the Board about the plan to sell buildings to finance the Red Plan which has only yeilded $3.6 million of the $27 million we had hoped to raise to defray bond costs. In addition to that part of our current shortfall I looked at another PR document from early on in the Red Plan which mentions that Energy and operational efficiencies would account for up to 13% of annual savings. I’d noted that this had not materialized to the extent we had hoped. One of my alert readers sent me an article I’d forgotten all about that I’d put in my blog. It notes that:

“Red Plan manager Johnson Controls estimated in 2007 that roughly $830,000 would be saved annually in heat, electricity and water bills from the closure and consolidation of buildings and the use of new and renovated schools. In 2012, the district saved less than half that: about $395,000. Once schools like Central High School and Morgan Park Middle School are sold and the Red Plan is complete, annual savings should total about $700,000, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the district.”

$440,000 annually is better than the cost of four teachers a year. These things add up. I’ve mentioned before that since 1997 we put about ten million less annually from our local property taxes into the classroom. That’s about 111 teachers. And more recently an old School Board member, Rich Paulson, who has been bird dogging our finances for the past six years told me that our health insurance contracts changed in 2009 in such a way that the District saw a jump of $3 million the following year as we began HRA’s for our staff or “Health Reimbursement Arrangements.” I came home with lots of information to review before we meet next Monday for a Committee of the Whole on our Budget. Three million a year is another thirty teacher’s worth of expense.

If ever a school board needed to focus on finances its the Duluth School Board. Unlike most school boards in Minnesota our Board has had precious little experience in negotiating our contract and probably even less in understanding the finances of our District. If we, as a Board, ever hope to get a handle on class sizes and course offerings we need to up our game.

Money isn’t just the “mother’s milk of politics.” Its the Mother’s milk of education. I’d call it a holy cow.