Category Archives: Duluth Schools

The District’s next bond

The Nation’s financial panic threatens the last third of the Red Plan’s bonding. Hardly any investors are buying bonds from any governments. That was the gist of this story in the Trib’s Sunday Paper.

There was a significant portion of the story detailing the Duluth School District’s dilemma which I will quote in full:

Despite present bond market instabilities, Duluth school district officials remain optimistic conditions won’t have much affect on the cost of implementing their “red plan” – a long-range initiative to consolidate and renovate several schools.

Two-thirds of the bonds for the $293 million project already have been sold, with the remaining third slated for sale in the next six months. That flexible time window should save the district from being hit by bad market conditions, according to Mike David, account executive for Johnson Controls, the consulting firm heading up implementation of the red plan.

“If we had to sell them today, that would be a concern. But that’s not the plan,” David said. “The markets are in turmoil right now, but I believe everyone expects them to settle out, and when they do, we will sell them.”

The district is planning for a 5 percent interest rate on the final bond installment. If the market starts pushing that number up, David said it could be worrisome.

“Seven percent or something would obviously be higher than what we are expecting, but it’s difficult to say when it would really start to cause a problem,” David said.

The district received lower-than-expected interest rates on earlier bond sales, providing some wiggle room.

If anything, David said, the district is hoping the economic hard times will prove beneficial for the red plan.

“The fact that other projects across the country will be shelved as a result of this, we will hopefully end up with better pricing when we bid our projects because it will essentially decrease demand,” he said.

One thing you can always count on from JCI is an upbeat attitude. Their kind of jaunty like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke when he was lopping off the tops of all those parking meters. It must be the sound of all that loose change.

Doty misses the point

In his recent column Ralph Doty makes some interesting and valuable comments about the Duluth Area’s property taxes. I have good reason for irritation with Doty on an old score but I appreciate anyone who can wade through the murk to point out useful information.

I found this observation particularly interesting.

“City councilor Todd Fedora recently told a radio audience that tax receipts from Duluth’s property tax levy were $13.5 million in 2007. But — here’s the rub – the city’s total health costs for current and retired employees was $17.4 million.

If the city wasn’t’t taking in a lot of money from its sales tax, it would have been bankrupt a long time ago.”

But on one score Doty is completely wrong.

“While the city of Duluth struggles with its deficit and the school district continues to cut important services to students, St. Louis County blithely goes about the business of funding projects and services the city can only dream about – and increasing property taxes every year to pay the bills.

Anger over city property taxes seems to be misplaced: The county’s share of a property tax dollar is 63 cents, while the city gets 22 cents and the school district receives even less at 11 cents.”

While Doty is right to point out the size of property taxes imposed by St. Louis County he too easily dismisses the tax increases of the School Board. Yes, the Schools consume far less property tax but the School District has a bigger budget than the City of Duluth. The schools property taxes are low because the State has made it a point to keep them low because of the relative importance of public education and its determination not to give poor kids and poor communities inferior K-12 schools. The State legislature didn’t anticipate that School Districts like Duluth would use the state’s school tax relief as cover to gouge taxpayers. If every school district in the state did what Duluth was doing the state would intervene in a heartbeat to prevent the state from going into bankruptcy.

When the District’s rates went down it made the schools share of the total property taxes look much more reasonable relative to the City or County. But to reinterate, The school district’s budget is bigger than the cities. Furthermore, the Red Plan will double the School’s property taxes in a few years while the County is increasing its tax rate by 5%. That’s nothing compared to last years school property tax increase of 56%.

Dismissing this monstrous increase by comparing the School District with the City and County is a lousy way to justify the Red Plan.

Fossils roar back to life

I slipped down to Ordean to snap a couple more photos on the dinosaurs rampaging through the neighborhood.

The wooded ravine behind Steggy will be paved over for a parking lot.

The Duluth School Board will seize this home through eminent domain having never warned the homeowner or voters that its building plan would lead to this.

City levy cap

During my eight years on the School Board I was convinced that there was so much overlap between the three local governments – City, County, School Board – that there should be more cooperation between them. There was some intercommunication but frankly, turf protection was a powerful obstacle.

I think we are overdue for some sort of more formalized integration, especially where the raising of taxes is concerned. Therefore I took note last legislative session when Gov. Pawlenty insisted on putting a temporary 3.9% cap on increases in local levies. This cap was not directed at school districts.

I hadn’t paid close enough attention to it to know the precise details. Did it refer to Cities or counties or both? So, last spring I called a city councilor and asked him about it. He seemed unaware of the law and the new Ness administration had yet to bring the subject up with the City Council.

Well, finally the Trib has written a story about the bind the City is in. The law is a ham handed and clumsy way to end complaints that state cut backs are driving increases in local property taxes. Governor Pawlenty can be accused of insisting on the cap on but Senator Tom Bakk, the State Senate’s Tax Committee chair, went along with it as did the rest of the DFL dominated legislature.

The City desperately needs money (in my opinion) and its having to resort to painful but pragmatic budget cuts. Meanwhile the Duluth School Board raised its taxes by 56% to begin the Red Plan. It still has another third of the Red Plan costs ($90 million dollars worth) to levy for the Red Plan. Now the District is asking for another round of tax increases for operational spending. The Schools are running amok while the City has fallen into a fiscal pothole.

If ever there was a time to give some joint city, county, school district commission authority to regulate the taxing and spending authority of the three entities this is it.

Red ink for schools but not for city

Let Duluth Vote has characterized supporters of the Red Plan as having drunk the koolaid. I don’t think there is a better example of this than Bevan Schraw who ardently believes the Red Plan will be a great boon to Duluth. Bevan is an old friend. I once passed out flyers for his campaign for the school board to about 7,000 homes.

Like other Red Plan supporters Bevan is besotted with Dr. Dixon. You would hardly recognize him as a koolaid drinker from commending Mayor Ness for his tough economy moves in cutting 217 Duluth employees.

“Kudoes to Donnie for his efforts. However, the problems continue to grow!!!When the Retiree Health Care Task Force put together thier list of recommendations, their 1st recommendation was to bring someone on board who had extensive knowledge about Municipal Bankruptcy. At the time City councilors and the Mayor were too proud to admit that the city was on the brink of finacial collapse. The State auditor also acknowledged that ALL property tax revenue collected was being spent for current and former employee Health Care. Nothing from that source to pay for necessary services. That is why every one is searching for additional ways to raise revenue { I am 100 % in favor of selling stained glass and land parcels.) The problem is only becoming worse. I heard on the news yesterday that Health care costs as predicted to rise 16 percent within the next year. This NATION must come to grips with the fact that whole Health Care system, and associated costs, has be totally overhauled!!!. Until then, bring in the bankruptcy attorney, and shed the burden of having all our property taxes end up with the SMDC folks – (those folks Who also get a City Subsidy for their parking ramp.) “

Report on School Board meeting

One of our LDV supporters made it to the meetings where Dr. Dixon was scheduled to get a $5,000 bonus for his successes and a second meeting which immediately followed.

Her report is excellent:

Hello All,

Well I did make it to tonight’s special school board meeting. I was the only one there for the first meeting from the public but I did speak to both Dixon’s bonus and to the upcoming operational levy. I also pointed out that Dixon’s use of the word “Vague” from the last meeting was offensive and a misuse of public trust., Apparently he told the school board to be Vague about what they would use the levy money on during the last meeting. The Board then retired to a closed meeting so I don’t know how they voted, but I can certainly guess that Dixon can go out and celebrate on the taxpayers of Duluth Again.

The meeting that followed started quite late, but Rich & I sat and listened to the information on the upcoming wording for the levy. Dixon immediately stated in this meeting that he never used the word “Vague” about the operational levy. At least two of our members heard it last meeting – In any event, it was quite clear that we have all ends of the spectrum on emotions from the Board on whether the Levy will be a success. Nancy Nilsen, supports a three tier question, using the current amount, and increase to 700 per pupil (double what it is now) and third tier would be 1200.00 (triple) Ann W seems to think that they should go for broke and demand the public support the full 1400 (maximum allowable) because the kids DESERVE a quality education. (too bad they did not think of that before they went for broke and angered the entire city with the No Vote Red Plan.) Tim Grover seems to believe they would be lucky to get the public to continue the current levy but believes they should tack on inflation costs. Big discussions on that issue because apparently a new law allows them to put the current amount on the ballot with wording showing that it will not increase taxes. Many of the School board members believe that any other wording could doom it. They all seemed painfully aware of the issues should the operating levy fail entirely. They talked about the wording for the three tier questions. A person who supports the full 1400.00 would have to check yes to all three options. A person voting down the levy would have to say no to all three questions. Etc., I think it sounds confusing.

Judy Seliga-Punyko finally saw the light when she finally realized that levy or no levy, the District will not be able to bring back the 7th period day. (her pet desire) I am guessing she has made promises to people In her area about getting that back for them. She seemed like a deer in headlights when that realization hit her.

They passed out a sheet that showed the effects of the different amounts of levy dollars throughout the 5 years that it would be in effect, even the full 1400 would put them in the red before the end of the 5 years. Nancy Nilsen pointed out that they could always put through another levy before the 5 years was up when they ran out of money again.

One of the interesting points that Dixon was attempting to make is using a couple charts. One showed 31 school districts in Northern & Central Minnesota. Duluth was considered the 6th or 7th highest income out of 31. Then he showed 275 or so Districts in Minnesota and the per capita funding amounts and Duluth was way down I think somewhere in the 225th. He then talked about what amount Duluth citizens could afford to pay. The reasoning was we can well afford to increase what we pay.

I heard several School Board members talk about how they will market for the levy. I think I heard that they are not allowed to use taxpayer dollars to market or do campaigning for the operational levy. Knowing their history in spending on the news tribune, that should be interesting.

I finally left at 8:30 and they seemed like they were beginning to wrap things up but the last I heard they were going to crunch some numbers and send them out to board members and maybe meet again in a few days to decide on which set of “tiers” to use in the wording.

Funny, it was one of the more interesting meetings for me. It was kind of interesting to see some vulnerability on a few of their faces, like, “hmm, maybe our actions really are going to cause this levy to fail.” – of course some of them are so far removed they don’t appear the least bit concerned (Ann Wasson & Nancy Nilsen)

A little more about the Central cannon

Chuck Frederick and I have been emailing back and forth about the cannon for some weeks now. He’s gotten a little more information about it and is looking for more.

He’s also been tinkering with a column I submitted to the Trib which will be in tomorrow’s paper. I can live with the final product he sent me after I had a chance to make one tiny change to it. The Trib’s version is 80 words longer than the one I first submitted to them. They’re getting generous with their ink. I’ll link to it tomorrow if it does show up.

Internal savings not going so well

Word has recently gotten out that administrative cuts that have been implemented by the Dixon administration have not gone so well. When the new Assistant Superintendent, Joe Hill, took over he was going to do the work of both the Curriculum Director and the Operations Director. But the workload has proven too great and a new Curriculum Director will be hired on an expensive temporary basis. This step backwards will not help the District as it faces a $5.9 million defict.

Another administrator will be camouflaged making it look like he’s been eliminated from the administration by having his salary paid for from a huge $9.2 million Safe and Healthy Schools Grant that the District was recently awarded. What the grant givers would make of having their funds used to pay for District administration is anybody’s guess.

Damn Speech

One of the things I have managed to upload and which has stayed intact through all the messing around is my “Damn Speech.” I took the Lord’s name in vain.

It’s perhaps the best example I have of my composing a speech on the fly. Its a bit long but I was pretty charged up when I gave it. I had been planning for two years to support a referendum to raise more property taxes for the Schools. Minnesota had slid from fifth place to the middle of the pack where per pupil spending was concerned and it was worse for property tax poor Duluth. We’d been cutting the school budget for years and I was desperate to fill our coffers back up again. Then on the eve of our decision about whether to offer an excess levy referendum Nine-Eleven happened.

That pretty well made a hash of any drive to raise taxes. Certainly a levy referendum seemed a lot less important. Nonetheless, I felt I had a duty to press for the referendum and when one of the other school board members made light of the few parents who had showed up to suport the levy it really stuck in my craw.

Take a look

Another sign that the Duluth School District is on the right path

I recently heard a story which confirmed a long held belief. People who are being watched are more likely to behave. This has also been confirmed by video cameras placed in cars and directed at drivers. People behind the wheel correct their careless behavior rather than let it be captured on camera.

Of course, doing what is right because it is right rather than doing right because you’ll stay out of trouble is not particularly honorable but just tell that to the person whose gotten hit by a wreckless driver or mugged, raped and cheated because no one was watching.

When I was on the Duluth School Board one of the more troubling incidents involved a rape in a Denfeld High stairwell. The Board talked about getting cameras but was stymied due to their prohibitive expense. Apparently this roadblock has been lifted. Way to go Duluth Schools!

A Superintendent for 14 years!

 In 1978 I ran for the state legislature for a second time. I decided to go about it differently as knocking on doors seemed mindless and hadn’t gotten me elected two years before. I made appointments with about 80 leading citizens thinking that somehow these meetings would generate good vibes. If they did they made no difference in the outcome of the election. 

One of the people I met with was Richard Pearson Duluth’s Superintendent of Schools. I met him in his office at Old Central High School. Since then I’ve met with three other superintendent’s in that office.  Richard Pearson died last Friday. The Trib had a nice story about his career in Duluth. 

I didn’t really get to know Dick until years later when I served on the School Board. Our times in office were quite different. He became Superintendent during the “Minnesota Miracle” when the state pioneered the practice of equalizing educational spending between rich and poor school districts. He witnessed the first and only teacher’s strike when the teacher’s unions were flexing their muscles. He served for fourteen years! Before I was finally elected on my fourth attempt for the School Board the District averaged one Superintendent per year. During my time on the Board we had a three-year and a seven-year Superintendency. Fourteen years! 

Dick’s family and mine both belonged to Glen Avon Presbyterian so we saw each other there. I went over to his house once to ask about school finances and he commisserated with me a couple times over the fiscal difficulties I faced. He was a practical man and this served him well during his leadership of the District. I’ll miss him.

More Money for the Board?

The last time the School Board raised its pay was the year before I was sworn in. Evidently the Board is considering whether to bump the pay up by about 11 percent.

Laura Condon, who has served for 9 years says she’s opposed to this since the District is having hard fiscal times. So what else is new? If the Board had been taking cost of living adjustments for the last 12 years the pay would be considerably higher than the proposed increase.

This seems like a good time to bump up the pay. Bob Mars, a man of means with a sense of noblese oblige would disagree. He never accepted his pay. He felt that being on the School Board was a responsibility that should be given freely. This is a rather utopian idea. I never voted for a pay raise for myself because, like Bob, I didn’t need it and it would have been politically awkward. However, I’d hate to see the Board become the preserve of the well-to-do. The pay did help a couple of our Board members of more modest means. Certainly being on the Board is a great responsibility.

Things are going pretty well for the District right now and the Board seems to be functioning smoothly under the new Dixon Administration. I say go for it. I’ve got no problem with the School Board’s taking a pay raise.

Soda Schmoda

Another interesting item in school news. ExPrez Bill Clinton has brokered a deal with the soft drinks industry to pull soda pop out of the nation’s schools by 2009-10.

Here’s a little Duluth backstory to this:

Last night I was talking to a former high school principal and he mentioned this in regards to our efforts to raise money for the Duluth Public Schools Endowment.

While he and I were with the District we were always scrambling for funds. Former Board member Pati Rolf, a strong advocate for healthy living, once pushed to have soda pop vending machines removed from the schools and for good reason. Soda pop (along with other high sugar and high fat foods) is leading to an epidemic of obesity in children with a resultant spike in diabetes, heart disease etc, etc, etc.

Some people may shrug this off as liberal whining but there’s no question that our government subsidized agricultural and food processing industries are plying us with food so that we are stuffing it down our faces like never before.

The talk of banning vending machines raised the hackles of all three of our high school principals. They discourage in the strongest terms from doing this. All our high schools have arrangements with soft drinks suppliers to split soda sales with the schools. The School Board’s concern about our children’s health threatened their ability to give children after school programs. What a two edged sword! (For crying out loud speech and debate has all but disappeared in the Duluth Schools!)

Our local bottler Bernicks set up a ten-year deal to supply soda to the schools in return for $30,000 to help furnish and equip Public School Stadium. How can we renege on that deal?

Time will tell what will happen locally or even nationally but I can’t help but think this is a good and worthwhile effort. Believe it or not when I went to High School we only had an apple and milk vending machine if memory serves me correctly. But then, my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Tech Schmeck

One consequence of the Minnesota’s fall from 5th in per-pupil spending to 23rd has been a lack of funds to keep our state’s schools up to date in technical training. Even now Duluth Denfeld is asking its grads for money to pay for something called “smart books” which must be some kind of technological gizmo. In the short run this may not be a problem as this story in the Minneapolist Trib reports:

“the report says nothing about a link between technology and student achievement. In fact, the report’s authors acknowledge that many of the lowest-scoring states on this list have some of the highest student test scores.

And some of the top-scoring technology states — such as West Virginia and Arkansas — have a tradition of struggling schools.”

Still, over time, lapses like this will have an impact. Repeat the Republican mantra after me, “No new taxes, no new taxes, know gnu Texas.”

Raising more money – for the Duluth Schools

My primary concern for the past two weeks has been the Duluth Public Schools Endowment. Six days from today there will be an organizational meeting to start fundraising to accumulate an endowment fund worthy of Duluth. Today I’ll start calling friends, retired teachers, PTA members, community leaders, and parents of school kids to get them to attend. I have seen little response to my column encouraging people to attend. This demonstrates an iron law of volunteerism. To get people involved you have to ask them. (The same iron law goes for getting contributions as well)

To make this succeed I’ll have to overcome my “Minnesota Nice” instincts which is partly a reluctance to intrude on others and partly a reluctance to have them tell you “no.” I need a minimum of 40 people. We’re half way there. We’ll find them.

There is a small division of opinion on the Endowment Fund Board about whether the best way to raise money is through a few big donors or through many small ones. I’m pushing for both.

Certainly there are people who could write large checks and for whom public education would be a worthy recipient even and above the taxes they already pay toward that end. On the other hand, I suggested in my Reader column a couple weeks ago that it might be possible to talk a thousand parents into making annual ten dollar contributions to the endowment. A thousand times ten is ten thousand dollars. One fat cat could do that with a single check. But I like the idea of giving everyone a chance to do a little something above and beyond the call of taxation for our schools. Besides, any contribution will help cement the relationship between our schools and the contributors. What’s more, today’s small contributor may be tomorrow’s bigger contributor.

Howie Hanson’s e’blog yesterday carried Duluth Marshall’s announcement of having successfully raised $4.7 million dollars in the past couple years. Sure, Marshall has no choice but to raise money and has a fairly well-to-do donor base. Still, Marshall’s families are a fraction of those in the Duluth Public Schools. This ought to provide some incentive for partisans of the Duluth Schools. If Marshall can do it so can we.

Wish us luck, or better yet send me an email telling me you are going to come. Oh, I forgot. I’ve got to call you first. What’s your number again?

Duluth tenth graders can right rite

The top story in the DNT’s local section showed that 93 percent of Duluth’s tenth graders can write passably. On a scale from 1 to 6, 3 being passing, all but seven percent pass muster.

This is not to suggest that writing at level 3 is anything special. You wouldn’t want to read a blog written at level 3 but a person can survive in our literate world at this rate.

The NCLB law is not the first effort aimed at pushing low functioning kids to higher levels. Its only innovation is being the first nationalized effort to do so. As a teacher a couple decades ago it began to dawn on me that I had lots of barely literate kids in my social studies classes. Rather than do all my testing with multiple choice tests I began testing my kids with essays. Its one thing to ask kids what caused the civil war in an essay than to offer them the alternatives of A.slavery, B.sectional economic differences, B.Kansas Nebraska Act, D.the banana boycott; to see if kids have learned their history. Many couldn’t and many wouldn’t write anything. Blank answers weren’t necessarily eividence of ignorance of the subject. It was just as likely an indication of their unwillingness to demonstrate their poor writing skills. How far would a kid go to hide such a failing?

Today’s Dear Abby has a letter from a young woman whose 33 year-old boyfriend refuses to do anything about his illiteracy. It raises the age old question of how a child can spend ten or twelve years in school without learning how to do the single most requiement of an education.

Whatever else its flaws NCLB testing is one way to keep a school district focused on student progress so that they don’t fall between the cracks.

It didn’t take passing NCLB to get this done. Fifteen years ago Minnesota adopted a process called “outcome based education” or OBE for short. The idea was simple. Schools would pay more attention to the outcome of a child’s schooling i.e. getting them educated than it would keeping trakc of their seat time (time spent in class). Ironically it was killed by Republicans and their allies for doing exactly what the NCLB is nnow attempting to do – make sure no child falls too far behind his classmates. But the outrage that killed OBE had more to do with the fear that schools would spend all their resources on the worst students by shafting gifted and ambitious kids. This complaint lives on with the Republican inspired NLCB.

OBE was followed by Minnesota’s even more ambitious “Profiles of Learning.”  It had too many cooks, hundreds and thousands of designers made it so complicated that it was almost beyond the public’s comprehension. Again state Republicans led the charge to kill another ed reform. Now Republicans are beginning to rebel anainst President Bush’s NCLB.

Why is it that 7 out of ten Duluth tenth graders can’t write? Some may be newly enrolled foreign students still learning English. Others may be special education students with limited intellectual abilities. Some may have gotten their education in other school districts so that Duluth shouldn’t have to be tagged with their failure. Whatever the reason it should remain a reason and not an excuse. An excuse is one step away from a justification.

800 Schools left behind

In an earlier post I complained about the Left Behind policies of the Bush Administration and how Duluth Schools could be listed as failing their students starting next year.

Tom Boman, UMD’s Ed professor and a regular contributor to the Tribune, explained it so well that even I understand how stupid this is.

Better read it quick. The Trib only keeps stuff on their site for seven days unless it ends up being cached somewhere.

Will Duluth have failing schools courtesy of NCLB?

As I was leaving town for Texas I caught a story in the Strib. It was in the DTrib too. It suggested that because Minnesota allows schools not to count the test scores of lower performing special education students when they number fewer than 40 to a school the NCLB cops would come in and clean house. As a result Minnesota (and possibly Duluth) will likely see a lot more of its schools labeled as “underperformers.”

NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is the Bush brainchild based on his Texas education reforms. The NCLB has irritated his Republican base which has balked at having the Federal Government to override state standards. Utah is among the more resistant.

On the plus side NCLB pushes states to pay attention to the academic progress of their poor children. On the minus side there is nothing in NCLB which requires states to equalize funding for impoverished school districts. Rather, it pushes state’s to implement cheap mind deadening “drill and kill” rote memorization and expensive mass testing.

Bush’s Texas miracle has led a lot of desperate school districts in that state to cheat. That’s not very encouraging.