Category Archives: Education

Is LHB Lake County’s JCI?

I heard an interesting story yesterday from a Lake County businessmen. He told me that LHB in Duluth had underwritten the last three or four attempts to pass a bond to build a new school in Two Harbors. I asked him how he knew this and he said he got it from sources in Lake County’s government. School bonds failed year after year for the project that LHB was set to design and build. Many people in the community felt the relatively recent high school built in the 1960’s should be fixed up instead for a much smaller cost of around $2 million.

After a succession of earlier referendums failed the District engineered an election in the summer months to insure that Snowbirds and cabin owners would be away from the voting booth. This last time the bond passed, narrowly as I recall.

So LHB got its school built and it has been an albatross around the School District’s neck ever since. It has made it impossible to get angry tax payers to vote for operational levies. This has meant that the new school’s swimming pool had to be closed and more recently left the community with a four-day school week.

Good luck getting a new excess levy passed

Its not only the Red Plan that has cost teacher’s jobs. Its the new teacher contract.

On July 20, the board passed a $63 million teacher-labor contract. Teachers were given 3.1 percent pay raises and 13 percent medical benefit increases. They now have 100 percent of their health premiums paid with zero deductible. Most of their dental is paid, too.

This compares to a 0 percent increase for city workers the past three years and high co-pays.

Despite the District’s cry of insolvency the District managed to conclude a new contract without the help of the School Board that was a lot more generous than the City has been in contracts with City employees.

Voters are likely to remember this the next time the District cries poverty and asks for more local property tax increases.

Struggling minorities

Today’s Trib story about the District’s attempts to do right by minorities is important. Just before the Trib canned its previous Education Reporter she wrote a story that questioned whether the District’s plans to divert a million “Deseg” dollars away from the magnet schools was a good idea. Some of my crowd thought that it was what got her fired although my sources at the Trib denied that this could be possible.

A story (I didn’t bother linking to) a month ago had Board Member Judy Seliga-Punyko enthusing about the new eight lane pool being added to the soon-to-be East Junior High. She was a swimmer, is a swimming coach and has children who swim. Old LDV’ers sent the story to me commenting how Judy got hers. Ann Wasson is getting a new expanded Congdon Elementary and the new equity producing stadium at the new East High School. Tim Grover got a new Piedmont and a new junior high that will insure that Piedmont children are not bussed to Morgan Park something he has long opposed (although he was a lot less vociferous about opposing the bussing of MP children the same distance East).

That has left Mary Cameron with little to show for the Red Plan’s work except reports that her community and even her family are unhappy with her. She may finally have something to show for her faith in Dr. Dixon.

Bringing minorities in public schools to their academic potential has been fraught with challenges. The story about the Washington DC Schools today echoes Duluth. Mayor Fenty was defeated largely because he refused to reign in the reforms of the hard charging DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee. The Teacher’s Unions and a great many dead wood administrators (appointed by ans earlier cocaine sniffing Mayor) lost their jobs under Rhee. Half filled schools were closed. Merit pay is being disbursed. Rhee is making a difference and her loss will be, would be (in my humble opinion) tragic.

Duluth’s failure to bring up the test scores of minority students, particularly native and black students, has been a sore point for a long time. Mary has had every right to question whether the magnet schools were worth the million dollars of spending they got. Some of the spending seemed little more than bones for the minority community. The Red Plan’s response is counterintuitive at best. Soon Duluth’s two most segregated inner city schools will be merged without their previous magnetic pull This will concentrate minority students even more.

The test will be whether the new program which emphasizes hiring assistants, eleven of them, to coach minority students in need can do what the magnet schools never accomplished. I can’t fault Mary for being willing to try something new. I also know that these new hires accomplish something that she has lobbied for for twenty years. Most of the eleven new hires belong to minorities themselves and they will provide role models for kids who only have seen white teachers. Doing this before was damn near impossible as the District’s enrollment shrank leaving senior teachers in the way of new hires. Besides, Duluth was a mostly white town not the sort of place an ambitious minority teacher would be eager to set roots down into. All the dislocation of the Red Plan and the canceling of the Deseg program has given Dr. Dixon the resources to reverse this sorry history and reward Board member Cameron.

I have little confidence in the Superintendent or his motives. He once told a community meeting that if a child hadn’t overcome his/her racism by the time they got to high school its too late to change their minds. That’s not a very enlightened attitude. Still, whatever you make of his methods he has given Mary what she has long desired. His slender majority has little reason for complaint.

Lake Wobegon effect

From a memo sent out by the District’s new assistant superintendent regarding the District’s graduation rate.

See if you can spot the anomoly.

2010 Central Graduation Rate: 96.28%
2010 Denfeld Graduation Rate: 87.28%
2010 East Graduation Rate: 96.64%
2010 District Graduation Rate: 83.17%
2010 State Target Rate: 85.00%

Our Schools aren’t failing

This is the contention of yesterday’s Trib editorial which tried to give context to the unhappy results of the MCA test results for Duluth’s school children.

No, our schools aren’t failing or lousy, no matter what might be suggested by Adequate Yearly Progress reports. But improvements obviously are needed. An entire community can come together – and can work together – to help all students succeed

As I told a person who emailed me about this the Trib, having backed the Red Plan, now owns the school district’s test results. Those results will forever (twenty years anyway) be linked to the Red Plan’s mortar.

So far the results aren’t encouraging: “Duluth schools fail state standards for yearly progress.”

When same old, same old, becomes “an unprecedented partnership”

I think the photo of the three men with their grim demeanors is the best indicator of how innovative the District’s latest PR band-aid is.

I’d post it but the Trib would ask that I remove their copyrighted picture. Dr. Dixon will probably get all his Red Plan but I don’t think he’s having much fun any more now that he is a pariah in so much of Duluth. What better than to pose with the reasonably popular Mayor and the innocent new President of the local community college to announce “an unprecedented partnership.” Calling potato soup vichyssoise only hides its primary ingredient.

My daughter took PSEO (Post secondary education) classes at Lake Superior State in 1998 twelve years ago. In fact, two decades ago the college was administrated by the School District. When its relationship was severed the District’s Vocational Ed program got the soon to be abandoned Secondary Technical Center. That was a seven million expense that was doing a very good job but abandoned when a more ambitious building plan caught people’s attention and now it has been eviscerated in the name of brick and mortar.

Funding this with the City’s job training money…..Some may remember former Representative Dale Swapinsky who was paid by these city funds as a “dropout recovery” specialist for the District with the job training funds. Too bad the city has more homeless kids than ever with fewer programs to keep them in schools. Fortunately the District is able to hide this fact probably because even more children have fled to other schools.

The funniest thing I’ve read about this trail blazing proposal is the idea of having students take “online classes” while at Old Central. Online education is intended to free students from school. They can be students wherever they have a computer, in their homes, at the library. Why should they go to school. This falls under the general title of distance learning. So the Schools will put kids on busses and take them to school no doubt frittering money away to have district employees monitor the kids while they are online.

Dr. Dixon has been described as an educational visionary when in fact he’s simply a very successful smooth operator. This well timed publicity strikes me as just the latest “good news” spin to give the Trib cover for endorsing Roger Reinert. But then again maybe I’m just flirting with my old nemesis cynicism.

I note the Trib’s timid editorial informing us that this could be a good idea. Yet again the Trib’s editorial board has good reason for timidity. A couple of the editorial’s sentences do get it about right:

The details are sketchy, a lot of what’s being talked about isn’t really new and the whole thing is at a vague visioning stage

School Board expresses confidence in JCI

After discovering that JCI’s grand plans for a northern school in St. Louis County may have fallen through because it somehow failed to exert control of County government one St. Louis County School Board member said this:

The zoning issue never surfaced in early discussions about site selection, but board members continued to express confidence in Johnson Controls’ handling of the property purchases.

“I’m not disappointed in Johnson Controls; they’ve done a very good job,” said Rantala. “Do I wish things could have gone differently with the variance? Yes, but I don’t blame Johnson Controls.”

Apparently St. Louis County has a few folks who are less Roger Reinert-like when it comes to giving the insiders whatever they want. Now its JCI’s turn to get half a loaf.

Five Day Tim?

It seems that Two Harbors request to implement a four-day school week has been denied for a second time by the State. After the first rebuff Supt. Minkininnen (sp) expressed confidence that Two Harbors had satisfied the Dept. of Ed’s demands. Apparently not.

Two Harbors is suffering from reduced state education spending like many other districts. This has been compounded by angry voters who, after ponying up for a big new high school, discovered the District couldn’t afford to run it so that they had to do things like close the swimming pool during the winter. As a consequence they have continued to vote against locally raised operational levies. (An ironic consequence of this was the discontinuation of a contract with Johnson Controls)

Switching to the massively inconvenient (for parents) four day school week was a drastic means of husbanding District resources. Two Harbors is not the first district to gravitate toward a short school week but helping the District save money may no longer be a top priority for the Pawlenty Administration.

I have a hunch that as our Governor stalks the nation looking for support for his Presidential campaign its occurred to him that news of a spate of “underfunded” schools seeking four-day school weeks could prove an embarrassment. It will be interesting to see if Two Harbors attempts to shorten their school week yet again.

The Lost H

There was an interesting juxtoposition of articles in the Trib’s opinion page today. Swimming upstream in the battle over the St. Louis County Schools building plan a Rev. Dale offered a somewhat eligiac paen to the wonderful new schools available to the County schools if only everyone would please be nice and stop fighting.

He began by writing about the soaring music refered to as the “lost cord.” I’d not heard of this before except for the head shop my sister in law used to work at in Mankato Minnesota. Only that was the “lost chord” with an H in it. Sure enough there is such a piece of music and its given a little write up in Wikipedia and I’m sure some of the other links I found for it when I googled play back the actual music.

Never having read the word chord written without the h unless it meant a rope I wondered if the term could have an alternate spelling especially as the good reverend referred to the cord without the h numerous times. Surely a copy writer or Trib editor would have caught the error and gently suggested the correct spelling. As a guy who is a faulty speller (although an accomplished pronouncer) I was sympathetic. I recall years ago trying to remember how to spell “walk” and thinking that it didn’t look right with an l in it. ” I’ve had editors correct my spelling and grammar when I submitted letters to the Trib before so reading the multiple cords suggested to me that the Trib is finally facing or defacing the music.

So, I was just searching the DNT website looking for the above referenced opinion piece and its not just the h that is lost. I can’t find the essay anywhere on the DNT site. To hunt for it in the search ending I did pick up the paper paper and saw the heading mention’s Rev. Dale’s “chord” and spells it properly. That was the only correction which leaves me to wonder if the good Reverend thinks that brick and mortar will really accomplish the mission he writes about of “…playing some beautiful note in public education.” to bolster “…the traditional liberal arts, a foundation that created the American genius.”

This seems to suggest two things. 1 that public schools are meant to prepare children for college and 2. that new buildings will insure the success of learning. Both of these are somewhat doubtful and the former point was contradicted in the letter to the editor cozying up next to Rev. Dale’s tome. That letter was from a Mr. Tim Riley (also missing from the online Trib) who makes the point that public education should not only be the province of college preparatory classes and Education degreed teachers.

Mr. Riley’s letter struck a cord with me. Like a cinched noose his logic was air tight.

All to the tune of a hickory stick

I got my invite to the Teacher’s Union screening a week ago. I’ve never been endorsed by the teacher’s union. I won’t be this time either so there is very little reason not to post the link a critic of the public teacher’s unions sent me about a successful program killed by the teachers in Washington DC.

In this case teacher’s unions trumped Black Americans who have rallied to the program’s defense.

In reply I sent him a link to the story this afternoon on National Public Radio to demonstrate that his implication that Obama’s Education Secretary kowtowed to the teacher’s union was in error.

BTW The Union’s leadership that will endorse Roger Reinert will do so to save face despite the unforgivable way they have sacrificed so many Duluth teachers for Dr. Dixon’s brick and mortar. Normally I’d tell the teacher’s union I would be honored to have their endorsement. This year – not so much.

three more days for me

As we speed toward the August 10th Primary I keep mental note of good days that tend to advantage me. I count the day I got 10.5% of the vote for DFL endorsement as one. The days that Mike Jaros’ endorsements made the papers as another and today looks good too as even the Tribune which will almost certainly follow the DFL’s endorsement of Reinert admitted that the school district’s administration hasn’t been acting with anything approaching transparency.

For the very first time the Trib Editorial Board acknowledged, however timidly, that the School Administration has been high handed. I told one astonished emailer that everyone has a breaking point and it sure as heck took the Trib a long time to find it and flex their atrophied skepticism muscle.

I had very little hope when I read the Our view headline: “Red Plan shifts can’t come as any surprise.” What I imagined was that they would point out the natural alterations one would expect from such a large project. Thankfully they dwelt on the unwillingness of the District Administration to share information in any sort of a reasonable way with the actual elected officials who give them the authority to proceed. In years past Trib reporters demanded timely information from the District and I don’t mean six months later. When I was on the Board two trib Ed reporters took turns sitting in the Superintendent’s office for 24 hours straight until the Superintendent handed over public docs a few weeks after they got wind of them. Maybe that’s what our minority school board members should do so they don’t have to wait half a year.

The index fingered Chairman told the Board at last night’s meeting that he didn’t want to see all the Administrations Red Plan documents which is par for the majority’s course but irrelevent to the three minority board members who do. Instead Tim Grover is reinforcing the District’s wall of secrecy because ignorance is his preference and the minority must be satisfied to share it with him.

Today also had the third defense of Tm’s fingerer in the letter to editor section. Maybe the Trib is finally taking Red Plan critics to heart.

The same editorial page had a damning critique of the Wheeler Site by Art Johnston, dismissed in the editorial as “seemingly never-ending opposition.”

Its easy to nitpick the editorial. It says that JCI will have to pay for cost overruns which won’t happen because the District keeps adding more goodies to the Red Plan every time they save money and its obvious that the District, not JCI will be stuck with any cost overruns.

Just what is happening is hardly transparent based on the odd information presented in today’s Forth Red Plan item their story about last night’s school board meeting concerning the cost of construction. It begins hopefully with a headline about school taxes declining (due to nothing the District has done) but then proceeds to report the following:

1…Because of a “competitive bid climate” in the construction industry, several projects were bid for lower amounts than estimated. About $25 million in the past three years has been put back into the plan, for additions or needs that have arisen through public input or necessity ” (What input???????? Not the School Boards. What “necessities?” Why weren’t they in the original Red Plan?)

2. The district is $803,000 over budget (they’ve saved $25 million but are $803,00 over budget????????????)

3. The board voted 5-2 to approve a Red Plan amendment that allows the district to move money around for several project changes totaling $11.6 million (Which, as the Editorial acknowledges, the School Board is largely clueless and content in their ignorance about)

So I’ll take today’s Trib as another advance in my election hopes for August 10th because as much as the Trib will root for the all but incumbent Roger Reinert, they are having to give credence to my three-year fight for an honest appraisal of the Red Plan. I have confidence that voters will remember that for the next 50 days.

And don’t forget that Roger was endorsed by Yvonne Prettner Solon whose running mate Mark Dayton contradicted the empty claims both Roger and Yvonne made when they told us that the School Board has the right to levy for building bonds without referendums. Its little things like make my day.

The Governor can’t rest on the fifth day

I’m not suprised that the Governor’s Ed Commissioner told Two Harbors “NO” on their plan for a four day school week. It wouldn’t have been the first Minnesota School District in the state to implement one but the others were approved before the Governor’s presidential ambitions got the best of him. A run on four-day school weeks could put a damper on his Presidential ambitions.

George W Bush ran in 2000 on his record of education reform in Texas – the one that led to the unpopular NCLB. The warts in his plan weren’t so obvious at the outset but four-day weeks would be as disconcerting as a thumbless hand shake.

Just why Two Harbors applied to shorten their school week is open to speculation. Certainly their building of a high school that led disgruntled voters into slapping down operational levies is a big part of the explanation. That was their miscalculation but there are other things they could do to keep the convenient five-day school week for parents working five day weeks themselves.

There might have been a touch of finger pointing in the request, “You’re not funding us fairly so you Governor, drove us to this!” After passing the buck to Pawlenty his Education Commissioner passed it to Two Harbors back saying in effect: “Don’t blame us for your Statutory Operating Debt.”

The quotes are both imagined but probably closer to what both sides are actually thinking.

And note to Ralph Doty who claimed the State Board of Education didn’t have the power to stop the Red Plan. Sure, this isn’t quite the same as a review and comment on a building plan but it shows the long hand of the state. Ralph was absolutely wrong to insist that Commissioner Seagren didn’t have the power to pull the plug on the Red Plan.

The Trib reported that the Superintendent was stunned. Big deal. He’ll only have to cut another 4 or 5 teachers to make up the quarter million the four day week was supposed to deliver! Maybe he can threaten the state with the school district’s lawyers to swat away this challenge. Its a tactic he’s fond of.

Duluth’s school board had a four day school week up for discussion recently. They chickened out but as the District continues to sink into the pits look for the idea to reemerge.

If Dr. Dixon isn’t looking to bail out of Duluth he’s a brave man.

Boys and School

This video has more insight on educating children and particularly boys (although it takes a few entertaining minutes to get to that subject) than all the fans of the Red Plan have put together.

Charter Schools

Among my “allies” in the anti Red Plan world is a fellow who has been madder than hell at me for a decade. He blames me for bringing in the Edison schools and killing his own children’s school Birchwood Elementary in the middle of Duluth Heights. He used to lambaste me in the paper having done so as I recall last year.

He wrote a letter to the editor this week which I mostly agree with. He concludes by warning that however we deal with this Red Plan we shouldn’t let Central High School be sold to the Edison schools.

This is all a preface to what’s become a long post about what to make of charter schools. Continue reading