Category Archives: Duluth Schools

From the Past

Sent to me by an email friend:

News Tribune

Feb. 23, 1971

* Members of the Duluth School Board were asked yesterday to support legislation to increase the state sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent. The request came from Duluth Councilman Leo McDonnell, president of the League of Minnesota Municipalities, which is recommending the proposal.

* Duluth city and school officials agreed last night to delay construction of a pedestrian overpass on Central Entrance to serve the new Central High School. They decided more study is needed to determine whether it is the best solution.

Forty years ago today

From the DNT’s “bygone” section:

News Tribune, Feb. 19, 1971

Negotiators for Duluth teachers told the School Board last night they are giving top priority this year to reduction of class sizes. Salaries were not discussed at the meeting, the first to discuss 1971-72 contracts.

I wonder if Frank Wanner helped set the priorities?

The courage to brown nose

One of my old political heroes was Rep. Pete McCloskey who took on Richard Nixon in the 1972 nomination process. He got exactly one vote at that year’s Republican National Convention. Years later I heard Pete give a speech on NPR where he pointed out that the word politician derives from politic which means, among other things, to give no offense. In other words we elect people to represent us who will bend over till their head is stuck where the sun won’t shine to avoid telling us anything we don’t want to hear.

In Tim Pawlenty’s case he vowed not to raise taxes when he got the GOP nomination for Governor in 2002 despite a looming deficit. When he waffled on that pledge after his election he was promptly beat up by Grover Norquist for attempting to raise “fees” as an alternative to taxes. So Pawlenty backed off, raised no taxes so he could keep his no new taxes bonifides as he pursued a GOP presidential nomination to challenge Obama in 2012. Lucky Minnesota now has an even more killing deficit to endure than the record setting red ink faced by Pawlenty in 2003.

Nevermind that the Republican deity, Ronald Reagan, who helped turn the no new taxes idea into a virtual religious commandment raised taxes as President and before that raised California’s taxes an unprecedented billion dollars back when a billion dollars was real money.

Real Courage today would be for a Republican to point out that all the borrowing we are doing to avoid taxes simply places a great burden on our children and grandchildren. Ah, but such an admissions could cost a GOP candidate a primary election so our GOP candidates are all busy courageously brown nosing no nothing, anti-tax fanatics at the expense of the next generation.

All this is prologue to thank Rep. Kerry Gauthier for courageously offering to defend Duluth from a mean old Republican Representative from Farmington, Minnesota who is threatening to take money from Duluth’s school children.

Last time I checked, Duluth schools were facing a massive $7.3 million deficit and planning on laying off dozens of teachers. The School Board is considering increasing class sizes, making kids walk two miles to and from school and even moving to a four-day school week.

I can’t prove it but I’m pretty willing to bet that the lion’s share of our District’s financial problem are pretty much self inflicted. Oh the economy hasn’t helped and the Pawlenty Administration has played it part but Duluth City Councilor Gauthier stuck his head in the sand when the Red Plan was pushed through. His excuse? The School District wasn’t his turf.

Well, the evil Education Chair that Kerry brags that he will fight represents Farmington, Minnesota a city where the City Council wasn’t afraid to tackle its school board over a controversial school building project. I don’t know all the details but the Farmington City Council set a much less supine example than Councilor Kerry Gauthier did in Duluth. Had Kerry been willing to challenge the unions that were hell bent on building the Red Plan, whether it was needed or not, our Duluth Schools would be in considerably less financial distress.

But that would have taken courage and all Rep. Gauthier is willing to offer us after-the-fact is the same sort of courage Governor Pawlenty gave us when he bowed to Grover Norquist and let our deficit balloon. Thanks Kerry. Thanks $293 million! And good luck fighting the Chair of the Education Committee in your position as a minority member of the House of Representatives.

7 million (per year) short of a solution?

I don’t subscribe to the Star Trib but I received this bit of intelligence from that paper today in an email. Its a year old. Anyone who thinks our City’s municipal problems are a thing of the past ought to reconsider. I believe I read that the latest census will reveal that we have lost another 5,000 people since the 2000 Census. That will hike the tax burden on those of us remaining while the State prepares to dump Local Government Aid.

Between that and the Red Plan Duluth still has a few hard years ahead.

Here is an excerpt from Star Tribune, 1/2/2011, that isn’t available on-line. The story is about public pensions.


First, elected officials from both parties often chose to hie the cost of these agreements from voters, often for decades. That’s how a $32 mill liability in Duluth in 1998 became more than $300 mil by 2009, raising the spectre of a potential bankruptcy filing.

Second, wages, pensions, and benefits are the result of collective bargaining. Ultimately, elected officials approved the contracts. Blame should be shared equally and any change will have to be negotiated mutually. Vilification is a standard negotiating tool, but not an effective opening gambit.

In Duluth, the city negotiated with the unions to end free retirement health care for anyone hired after 2007. It also negotiated the right to move all employees to a single health plan, and then did the same with retirees. Those changes have reduced the city’s projected shortfall from $350mil to $208 mil.

“It’s the difference betwee bankruptcy and solvency,” said Mayor Don Ness.

Ness is perhaps more optimistic than he should be. The accountants say the city needs to put aside about $17mil a year to meet current and future obligations, but the city can only afford about $10mil. The outlook worsens if health care costs rise faster than current projections, or if the MN Supreme Court overturns lower-court rulings that allowed the city to shift retirees into one plan.

The “Go to” guy again

WDIO TV called as I was putting on the finishing touches to the big blog entry of the day. I invited them over to say on video pretty much what I wrote about. I was so long winded it will be a chore for them to tease out a good sound bite. If they post the story tonight I’ll link to it tomorrow no matter how ungenerous it makes me look.

When the news crew arrived I was on the phone with a friend who just had to talk to me about the travails facing Duluth. He mentioned the near certainty of the City’s loss of LGA (Local Government Aid) from the state. Its ammounts to $30 million dollars in Duluth’s budget. Most of this money goes to the state’s big three cities. In January the Republicans will take over both houses of the legislature for the first time since I was in college 40 years ago. They will have to budget cut with a machete. About the only Democrats left in the legislature are the ones in the minority who represent the LGA hungry cities. Look for more local tax hikes when Duluth loses LGA. Good luck passing an operational levy for the School District. it took Faribault five years to do it after Dr. Dixon left and that city was facing tax hikes from the loss of LGA funds.

Snow fun

This post caught a little flak:

“Oh, boy. With poverty and starvation and our military people being maimed and killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, some people here are obsessed about having a fricking high school dance and the costs of primping for it?”

To which I replied:

Yes, in the face of these pressing priorities a complaint like this is small potatoes. Still, the District closed the schools on Friday even though 70 percent of the students saw relatively little snow and the following Saturday they didn’t shut down the Dance until the last minute despite knowing about inclement weather for 48 hours. Besides, the storm on Sat was even less ferocious than on Friday.

I think the current administration is so gun shy about bad public relations (which would result from a snow related accident) that they would call a snow day if someone caught sight of the Zamboni ice shavings heaped up outside the DECC.


Child centered decision making

I was sent a couple of public emails this morning addressed to the School Board from two unhappy ISD 709 parents.

The first described the treatment of a child by the principal of one of our schools. It was not happy reading. I also have no idea if it was fair or accurate. I received similar missives when I was a school board member and I always resisted weighing them with much force until I had gotten a chance to interview all parties. Whether they are completely accurate or not the treatment of the students did not suggest much humanity. I suspect the District is having a hard time offering such a product in the climate that seems to have descended with Dr. Dixon.

I have taken the liberty of editing the other email which strikes me as unquestionably legitimate criticism. Continue reading

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I paid no attention to tonight’s school board meeting as my wife and I had been invited out to dine with old friends. We had gotten home and I was reading a book to my wife, In Tasmania” to help us prepare for our trip next year to Australia. Its an odd history. The first third very funny as it relates the odd coincidences surrounding the author and his connection with the “Father of Tasmania” a man who can hardly be described as anything other than a rascal. I had just ventured into a darker section about the “annihilation” of the original Tasmanian descendents when Jana Hollingsworth called with the news that Dr. Dixon had just announced his retirement. She wanted my thoughts. I joshed around much like the author of my book did as he described the Father of Tasmania. I said nothing flattering.

I asked if anyone was handcuffed and was told that no this had not happened. Loren Martell was permitted to speak and did so without interruption. I asked if Mr. Martell had said anything more inflammatory than I had in describing my thoughts about Dr. Dixon. No, in the reporter’s opinion, he had not. I told her it was just as well I had not spoken at the meeting for I might not have fared as well.

I’m not surprised at the announcement. I had to watch the news to learn it was not effective immediately but would end with Dr. Dixon’s contract after the conclusion of the school year. Standard procedure. Since Dr. Dixon would be a major issue in the election taking place at that time and since he has all but guaranteed that his Red Plan will be completed it makes sense to plan a departure before a potentially hostile school board takes over. He might even apply for another job even though he has achieved the age of retirement. If he does I’m sure the contents of this blog will make any potential employees he would supervise wary of him. Sadly his Faribault detractors were so eager to see the back of him that they zipped their lips when the Duluth School Board came sniffing around to interview the last remaining superintendent candidate available to them. The others all got other jobs or telegraphed their disinterest in Duluth’s superintendency.

I suspect the employee who penned the poisonous critique of Gary Glass and Art Johnston today for the Trib was part of an elaborate plot to pass on the good word concerning Dixon and the Red Plan. One of the emails I received from a witness to the meeting told me that a number of Dixon fans showed up to thank him for his leadership. Apparently most of them bestowed their thanks in the form of a trinity, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Another email from up north commented that it was amazing how the two Superintendents who had done so much for JCI’s bottom line resigned simultaneously after having fattened up the investments of JCI stockholders.

I think Dr. Dixon would have fit in very comfortably with the founders of Tasmania.

Meanwhile back at the schools

35 Students, just 1 teacher

While the School Board chair is handcuffing critics the real work of the Duluth schools gets harder and harder to perform. The same Sunday Trib has what surely ought to be viewed as an expose of the overcrowding of our classrooms. Keeping our student-teacher ratios low was once paramount. Just how bad they’ve gotten can be deduced from these two paragraphs:

A yearly report of Duluth district class sizes shows a handful of elementary and middle school classrooms with as many as 35 students. Some high school classes, including core classes for math, science and English. have students numbering in the upper 30s. One German class has 41 students.

The Cloquet school district, whose latest scores were among the Northland’s highest in the state’s measure of Adequate Yearly Progress, also struggles to keep class sizes low. Some of its elementary-grade classes go as high as 27 kids per class this year, and its middle and high school class3es range from mid-20s to low 30s.

There is very little difference in the funding of these two school systems yet Cloquet has significantly lower student teacher ratios. I have suspected that school operations money has been finding its way into Red Plan construction. This would account for these deplorable ratios. Only an honest audit would uncover this. I’m hopeful that the former State Auditor and possible Governor Elect, Mark Dayton, would order up such an audit. I hope his Lt. Governor wouldn’t object.

If reporter Jana Hollingsworth had to get info from the outspoken Susan Van Druten its a sign that most teachers were paralyzed with fear and preferred to say nothing about their plight. I wonder how many teachers Jana had to go through before she finally realized almost none would talk to her? Most of our teachers feel handcuffed too.

Grover on the tepid defense

Tim “I ain’t saying nuthin” Grover also gets his one cent in defending his heavy handed censorship. Says Tim,

“On numerous occasions this year, Mr. Martell engaged in personal attacks and was asked to leave the podium.”

The District has the evidence, all those DVD’s of Mr. Martell speaking his mind. I think Tim should release them to the public to show how mean and nasty Mr. Martell is. I suspect they would only prove that Mr. Martell is anything but incivil. That’s why the District will almost certainly not make the DVD’s public It never releases any information that might undermine its empty arguments.

In the world of incivility I think vote theft, data suppression, and lying outrank carping about being cheated. Turning off microphones ain’t so hot either.

Martel on the tepid defense

Mr. Martell ably defends himself on the same page.

“Grover claims zero tolerance for personal attacks but seems only to enforce the rule when the alleged attacks are on him. Two meetings ago a woman came up to the podium, pointed at School Board member Art Johnston, called him out by name, and started dressing him down in front of the whole room. Her attack was of a much more personal nature than mine, but Grover did nothing to stop it.”

Mr. Martell who has attended lots of meetings goes on to debunk Chair Grover’s professed latitude “early in the year” by pointing out that ten months ago he shut the microphone off on a woman who was being very civil. Her offense, like Martell’s, was to simply read Tim Grover’s old abandoned campaign promises.

We in the public are treated to Mr. Martell’s words but not a very good picture of him. He himself comments that “Despite the scary-looking picture of me the News Tribune managed to cull from video footage I was not cursing, shouting or making threats.” The Trib kindly reprinted the less than flattering video image of Mr. Martell on this full page free speech extravaganza. Loren’s really a rather handsome fellow but maybe its better for the Trib’s editorial stance to let board member Seliga-Punyko’s fearful hysteria stand. This image could haunt her dreams for years to come.

Tepid defense… Pt. 3

Sheesh! A whole damned page on Sunday dedicated to the School Board handcuffing someone during the time for public comment and its not sufficiently important to put on the Trib’s website. Considering their limp treatment of the subject they may have good reason to hide it away.

Here’s the Trib:

“Its no secret that the man, Loren Martell…has become a roll-of-the-eyes, here-he-comes-again headache for some School Board members.”

Well, that settles it. He’s not civil enough just to shut up an go away after he demonstrated the Board Chair expunges public criticism from the public record and has adopted all together different public policies from the promises he once made as a candidate. In fact this is evidently a mark of courage according to the Trib.

“The turnabout was courageous, to say the least. He set aside his personal feelings for the good of the community and with the best interest of constituents in mind.”

No doubt when Tuesday roles around and he votes to violate another promise not to invoke eminent domain this will be yet another sign of Tim Grover’s courage. The Trib then quotes, invokes really, Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson by tell us that public comment is “…a privilege, not a right.” Thankfully the Trib goes on to elaborate saying “…it is the right thing to do.” There is, however, a caveat “members of the public…should ….remain civil….”

Ah but because of Tim Grover and other Board member’s sensitivity Mr. Martell probably crossed that line by making “trouble and to incite negative publicity?” Funny but that seems to me to be the crux of this. Duluth should be ecstatic about our new schools and the generous school board is sick and tired of carping from the sidelines. How uncivil. And by inciting negative publicity Board Member says with the Trib’s apparent agreement that she’s frightened by the soft spoken yet tenacious Mr. Martell. He has “pushed the Board to the point of alarm, prompting the need for police at School Board meetings” Why the district is even keeping track of his public comments on DVD. Why? For future use in a harassment suit maybe? Ms. Seliga Punyko would probably prefer to be a public official in China where critics of things like mass removal can be quietly put in prison.

Punyko is quoted in the editorial as saying “For teh last 10 months, ever meeting, he has grown more and more agitated. Every meeting he has gotten worse and worse, so much so that we feel threatened.”

Oh let’s role out those DVDs and see why if Mr. Martell has gotten “worse and worse” the Tribune’s editorial began by expressing surprise that Mr. Martell was carted away in cuffs when they wrote: “…the summoning of a police officer to remove Martell was a bit of an eye-popper…” My guess is that if Martell had been worse and worse as described no one’s eyes would have popped.

After this milchtoast criticism of the Board majority’s heavy-handedness the Trib quotes its former Editor, Virgil Swing, not a fan of censorship, and then concludes mildly “Everyone’s opinion is important. A diversity of views often leads to the best solutions. But all views have to be allowed to be heard first.”

Of course, if the views belong to a guy whose stubbornness leads to eye rolling, maybe its not that big a deal if you cuff him. Yeah for the first amendment!

To Censure or not to Censure

An interesting email circulating among School Board members:

Requested Meeting
william c. hanson
This message was sent with High importance.
Sent: Friday, October 22, 2010 10:37 AM
School Board
kathleen a. kaufman
We received a request to schedule a Special Meeting and are reviewing it with our attorneys.
The meeting is not on the schedule for next week. As you know, it is our normal practice when scheduling a special board meeting to poll board members regarding availability. In addition, it is also generally our practice to group board meetings together, for example scheduling a special board meeting on the same night we have a regular committee meeting or a regular school board meeting.

Bill Hanson
CFO/Executive Director of Business Services
ISD 709 – Duluth Public Schools
215 North 1st Ave East
Duluth, MN 55802


October 21, 2010

Independent School District 709
215 N 1st Av. E.
Duluth, MN 55802

The following School Board members request a Special Meeting of the ISD 709 school board on Tuesday October 26 at 6:30 at the regular board meeting room at HOCHS.

The agenda of this meeting will be to censure the presiding Chairperson due to misconduct and dereliction of duty at the October 19, 2010 regular board meeting.

This is under the authority of School Board By-Laws 9070 and 9070.

Art Johnston, 4th District Member

Gary Glass, Member at Large

Tom Kasper, Member at Large

Other Red Ink

In other local school news it appears there has been a 20% (19.5% actually) jump in health care costs for teachers. DFT President Frank Wanner has trotted out the old tried and true “We gave up lots” for this goodie trope. Frank must spend a lot of time listening to former Duluth Police Captain Eli Miletich who is still fuming about the Court’s overruling past insurance giveaways to retired City employees.

What makes this figure stand out is that it happened during an incredible shrinkage of our teaching staff. Since 2007 there has been a seven percent reduction in our teaching staff from 1317 teachers to 1,136 today. Despite so many fewer teacher to insure the insurance costs increased 20%. Simply amazing!

Tim Grover explains that having been involved in previous year’s negotiations he prefers the current system because the process of remaining ignorant of the negotiations is so much less nasty than being a participant. If wearing blinders is an advantage for elected official perhaps we should open elections to cart horses.

I suspect that the insurance giveaways that have caused more teachers to be laid off were offered to keep the silence of senior teachers over the subject of the Red Plan and its continued downward spiral.

The justification, the first of many, to implement the Red Plan was because our schools were said to have too much unused space. With the rapid loss of students its entirely possible that a new Dr. Dixon could make the same argument once the Red Plan is completed. The cost of health care and the willful ignorance of the School Board over teacher benefits will hasten this process.

1.3 + 1.7 = ?, 6.5 + 6.5 = ?

School Board member Ann Wasson does her math a little differently than Art Johnston.

If you get a 1% increase in pay next year and a 2% increase the year after that second year will be a 3% increase over the year before the contract was negotiated. Same for the Health Insurance increase. (6.5 + 6.5 = 13)

You would have to look very hard through Duluth (or anywhere in the US for that matter) to find any workers getting an annual 6.5% increase in health care costs. As I said before such an increase will only lead to layoffs. Board member Wasson has probably paid little attention to the drama in the City of Duluth over the cost of health care. If she had she might realize that what she has given away will only lead to travail. That she gave so much away a year before negotiations had to begin was indeed improvident.

Not only is the Red Plan bonding set to come due but the current Board has a one time gift from the Federal Government of $2 million which will not likely be renewed with the prevailing Tea Partying climate.

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.

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.”

If this is true all hell should break loose

Over the past four years I’ve read three things about our schools that were shocking.

The third most shocking thing was the jaw dropping cost of the Red Plan at $293 million which including interest will be almost a half a billion dollars.

The second most shocking thing I read just before the cost of the Red Plan was announced was that the School Board could implement the plan without a vote. I was so shocked I made a call to my old buddy Tim Grover to ask him how the District could justify this. Tim’s response…….sort of ……Well the lawyers say we can.

The most shocking thing I’ve ever read about our district was stuck in as a little sidelight in today’s story about the unhappy parents of the District’s Native American students. The story says that they have a dismal 20 percent graduation rate which sure seems low by previous estimates to me. But this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

The story mentions that we have about 450 native students which considering that godawful rate of graduation rate has a significant gravitational pull on the whole grad rate. But this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

The story mentions that our student enrollment is about 8,500 students which, I suspect, is far below any projections of enrollment for our District that any credible source has ever anticipated. But even this isn’t the shocking fact I was referring to.

I can’t even believe the shocking fact. Its so shocking that I suspect it is a misprint. It is this – and someone should do a fact check immediately. According to the story Duluth has a graduation rate of 65 percent! That’s down near the rate for the state of Mississippi. That is unbelievable.

The story reports:

The district has 8,651 students, and 453 of them are American Indian. The 2008 graduation rate for American Indian students was 20.8 percent, compared to an overall graduating rate of 65.8 percent.

I know of no good explanation for this other than the possibility that Jana Hollingsworth, the story’s reporter, inadvertantly cut 20 % of the actual District graduation rate which is listed as 85% on the District’s web page for good news.

From “Katie’s Page… “We are proud”:

“Graduation Rate for Central, Denfeld, and East 93.05% (including alternative sites 85.44%”

Frankly a graduation rate of 85.44% is nothing to write home about. A decade ago the state of Minnesota boasted a 90% graduation rate. Educators like economists fiddle with definitions all the time so its hard to know what compares with what in previous statistics.

A rate of 85 percent could be grounds for firing the Superintendent. A rate of 65 percent, should it prove to be true, is grounds for riding him out in tar and feathers on one of the I beams from one of his many new temples of education.