So what else is new?

New School Board member Tom Kasper marvels at how everybody else knows what’s going on in ISD 709 except School Board members.

Says Tom:

“The thing that befuddles me is that the announcement (of Dixon’s retirement) was a surprise but it seems like this has been in the works for a while,”

Take that!

Here’s a fascinating video of a very rare thing. An outspoken non-idiot Republican. I’ve paid little attention to regional politics around the US lately but this guy, Christie, is the new Governor of New Jersey. I saw another video of him making it clear without dissing her that Sarah Palin’s success is a little like an alien invasion. Here he is addressing a teacher who has accused him of killing public education in the Garden state. No contest.
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We could use him in Duluth.

I could get sued for this

I just found this text version of the big lie. I could get hassled by the DNT for posting it in its entirety in violation of their copyright. I could get sued by the Duluth School Board for violating my agreement not to raise any issues that pertain to the lawsuit that got swallowed whole by the District’s lawyers.

I think that on the day after Dr. Dixon’s announced retirement my posting this is simply a public service by reminding folks how Duluth got suckered.

Duluth News Tribune (MN) – Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Representatives of the Duluth school district and Johnson Controls of Duluth said Monday that the amount of money the company will be eligible to receive for its role in the proposed $257 million school plan was greatly overstated during a public panel discussion the day before.

For assessing the district’s needs and overseeing public discussions, Johnson Controls is guaranteed a lump sum of $250,000. The multinational company will receive 2 percent of the project’s construction costs – about $4.5 million – for managing the remodeling and new construction of 15 school buildings, according to its contract with the district, Johnson Controls account executive Mike David said.

Confusion over Johnson Control’s contract with the district arose after a public meeting Sunday night at which a community panelist said the firm’s compensation could be as much as $33.4 million.

The firm entered into a contract with the district for designing and implementing a long – range facilities plan after a public bidding process held in January 2006.

As program manager, the firm will oversee about $30 million to $35 million of the project’s soft costs, such as fees for architects and engineers, but most of that money will be used to pay sub-consultants for their work.

“Johnson Controls acts as the conduit,” said Brent Jones, program manager for Johnson Controls. “We get the money upfront and use it to pay for the people we hire.”

The contract language does not prohibit Johnson Controls from using its own employees to do the consulting work, but David said Johnson Controls has every intention of hiring local consultants.

The contract also reserves the district’s right to reject any subcontractors chosen by Johnson Controls. The contracting work would be hired through a public bidding process.

most effective way’

Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for Duluth public schools, said it is not uncommon to hire a consultant to design and implement a school project. In fact, doing so ensures accountability for the district, he said.

“Too often when you split up projects, the people who come in and do the initial estimates are way off and it ends up costing you more,” he said.

Some community members and School Board members at Sunday’s meeting questioned whether it was a conflict of interest for the same company that determines how much the project will cost to get a percentage fee based on that estimate.

Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities in Washington, D.C., said it would not be in Johnson Controls’ best interest to overprice the project.

“A credible firm knows that to remain in business they have to deliver what they promise,” Marks said. “Johnson Controls is a major player in this industry; I don’t think it would make much sense for them to come in and try and pull a fast one on the Duluth schools.”

Jeff Schiltz, account executive for Johnson Controls, said the firm relied on several local contractors to estimate the cost of the project.

“If we came up with a half-a-billion plan , the community wouldn’t support it because of the tax impact,” Schiltz said.

SCHOOL Board response

Some School Board members at Sunday’s meeting said they were unaware Johnson Controls had been hired for both the design and implementation of the project. Others members said the long -term commitment with the firm was clear from the beginning.

Superintendent Keith Dixon said all board members were mailed a copy of the contract after official language was drafted in January.

“We authorized up to $250,000 to go to Johnson Controls to come up with a plan , in my mind,” board member Laura Condon said. Condon said she never saw a copy of a contract that agreed to hire Johnson Controls for the implementation of the project.

“I am not trying to imply anything here. I just want more answers about the language in that contract,” Condon said.

Board member Mary Cameron said she also did not see a contract but was aware of the long -term commitment to Johnson Controls.

“We knew they were going to be with us until the end,” Cameron said. “I didn’t know about the percentages, though, and if the questions I have aren’t answered and I feel things have been hidden from me, I would support tabling the vote.”

Ann Wasson, the board chairwoman who also signed off on the contract, said none of the details were hidden from board members.

“This should come as no surprise to board members,” she said. “I understood [Johnson Controls] would be getting 2 percent, which is standard … no flashing red lights.”

Board members Tom Hustad and Nancy Nilsen said they were aware of the contract and felt confident the percentages allocated to Johnson Controls were standard for the industry.

Dixon said board confusion might be stemming from an overload of information.

“It has been a long process, and there has been a ton of information,” Dixon said. “It’s hard to remember everything that has come forward on the spot.”

Johnson Controls officials said the compensation represents a fair price for more than six years of work, and that critics are trying to delay action on the controversial plan .

“There’s nothing hidden here; the district asked for someone to take over this process from beginning to end,” Schiltz said.

SARAH HORNER covers K-12 education. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 723-5342 or by e-mail at shorner@duluth

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.


Dixon Departure Redux

Here’s the story of the Dixon retirement that we will have to wait till the end of the school year to look forward to. I am, not surprisingly, the “go to” guy to get a less than glowing review of his tenure. A retirement is often like death in that people are reluctant to speak ill of the departed or departing.

I bit my tongue a bit when I was called last night. Had I been given more time to reflect on it I would have mentioned what I mentioned in last night’s post – that Dr. Dixon was getting out of Dodge before the next school board election. That of course, is an indication of what a damaged property he has become. Others will no doubt say of Dr. Dixon what has been said of other folks who are famous or infamous for forcing things down other people’s throats – that it took an exceptional person to hold the funnel over a squirming person’s mouth.

Understanding that the other folks commenting on Dixon had to be “Minnesota nice” I can only take umbrage to the evaluation of teacher union president Frank Wanner.

As a superintendent, Dixon has been in a different category from others, said Frank Wanner, president of the teacher’s union.

“He’s a superintendent that doesn’t always have to have everything his way,” he said. “He’s willing to work with others.”

Frank was essentially defanged in his senescent, final years as the DFT union boss. All the other unions in Duluth demanded to see the Red Plan pushed through and Frank was in no position to hold the Red Plan back no matter its affect on the schools. He spent very little time attending the Red Plan planning meetings which were in any case jerry rigged to sidestep any criticism of JCI’s and Dr. Dixon’s ambitious plans.

As to how happy the Duluth teachers are in the Dixon regime? Perhaps the best indicator of this is their willingness to comment publicly on the Red Plan and the classroom environment. You would have to ask a reporter how willing teachers are to comment candidly about these subjects. I certainly have seen fewer teachers laud the Red Plan. Even Mr. Taylor who criticized dissenting School Board members the other day had to qualify his condemnation by suggesting that whatever the merits their arguments had in the past it was time to shut up and go away. In other words, they may have been right. That’s not much of a condemnation. That would be a little like me slapping the wrist of some old Vietnam war vets for harping on our failure to keep fighting the Vietnam war until we won. Yes, at some time its necessary to look forward and not let the past drag you down. But we are not yet living in the past – the Dixon Past.

Here were two other Trib stories today in the Dixon present that demonstrate that the dragging down under Dixon is still proceeding apace.

The First was the story that proved the promises not to use eminent domain were empty from the outset.

The Second, is an even worse indictment of the Dixon years. An embarrassingly large number of our students are not faring well. Even “white” students in the Duluth schools only enjoy an 80% graduation rate. For years Minnesota has boasted a statewide graduation rate of nearly 90 percent which, of course, includes minorities in the calculation. This graph in today’s paper pretty well sums up the Dixon legacy and explains the consequences of a teacher’s union president allowing his union members to become pawns. Ah but he kept their medical insurance deductibles negligible.

This could have been predicted four years ago when hundreds of unhappy teachers begged to have their email addresses pulled off of Let Duluth Vote’s mailing list lest they face censure or punishment from Dr. Dixon’s PC Gestapo.

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!

Tepid defense… Pt. 2

Phooey! I hoped to begin tackling the Trib’s tepid defense of free speech rights tonight but the Trib hasn’t put any of the links to today’s (Sunday’s) Opinion pieces on their website. If they don’t do it by tomorrow I may have to type in some of the more arresting editorial comments for my readers amusement. With my cogent rebuttals, of course

Four books – Book 4

I get personal in this blog. More personal than my family would like me to be. I apparently live by a philosophy that encourages me not to hide any dirt under the rug. Maybe writing this post was prompted by this intelligent story from today’s NPR. Unlike ISD 709 I have little to hide. So:

My life has had four separate strands running through it since this blog began and each has been more than worthy enough of a book. The first strand is an actual book. Its the book I put on the shelf to fight for a vote on the Red Plan. The book is about quite possibly the biggest scandal in twentieth century Minnesota. I’ve begun dusting it off and hope to return to it full time by January.

The second is also the subject for a book I’ve promised to have done by the end of the year. Its the Red Plan, of course, and all my activities related to Let Duluth Vote.

The third strand is my unanticipated role as a very busy grandfather of the two cutest boys in the universe. Any books I write about that will be circulated primarily to my family but occassional glimpses make it to this blog and to Flickr and might yet make it to Facebook if I ever bother trying to figure out how my Facebook page works. Continue reading

A tepid defense of our right to speak up – Pt. 1

Loren Martel must rank right up their with fascists, nut cases, wing nuts and the criminally insane. I guess his category is guys you roll your eyes at when they can’t get over being locked up because no one bothered to find out that the DNA at the crime scene wasn’t his. Loren’s side lost. So what if they were lied to. So what if the mission of the public schools has been gravely compromised. He should really get over it instead of frightening school board members.

I’ve been playing in the snow with my grandson. I did read the two big Red Plan related stories in the DNT today. Between them they offer a great indictment of this school board although the DNT still hasn’t put two and two together to see it. I needed to go sliding in the snow with the Tan Man just to get the District out of my mind. I hear him playing downstairs with his grandmother while drinking some cocoa. That’s where I should be instead of stewing on the offal I read.

I really owe it to my loyal eight readers to expound on this but that’s just going to have to wait. Its Sunday. The Lord’s Day. And when I say that I don’t mean the School Board Chair.