Mire 3 – Dodgy “details?”

I had a conversation with Art Johnston that once again piqued my interest about the massive Red Plan debts which are sucking money out of our classrooms and raised my hopes we could do something about them.

After we met with our bond advisors a couple months ago they shut the door in our face about refinancing the way we wanted. It couldn’t be done.

That analysis seemed to come as a surprise to the finance people at the Minnesota Department of Education.

Some Board members might start asking more annoying questions even if that means a late meeting or two. The prospect of lowering class sizes is pretty irresistable………to some of us.

Mire 2 – Disagreeable “details”

Art Johnston asked me to attend the West Duluth Business meeting yesterday because he was heading out of town with Alanna Oswald to participate in discussions at the Minnesota Department of Education about school finance and Title One laws.

He missed an important discussion about west Duluth.

Laura MacAuther Principal, Nathan Glokle, formed a tag team with, Russ Salgy, of the afterschool Kid’s Club to talk about the kid’s eye view of Western Duluth. For the purposes of this post I’ll spend my time on Mr. Salgy’s presentation which was expanded from a similar talk I heard him give two years ago. Russ brought power points which I noticed other audience members taking pictures of before it occured to me to pull out my cell phone. Here are a fraction of them with my brief explanations:

Here’s one noting Denfeld’s student population and comparing it with the “competition” surrounding west Duluth. No wonder that our new school buildings aren’t a perfect magnet to keep kids at Denfeld.

Here’s one giving some general demographics the most stark being the eleven year shorter lifespans in the Denfeld Zip Code compared to nearby zip codes.


This slide is particulary close to Russ’s heart. Russ notes that in the 1970’s kids in western Duluth had about 30 after school locations they could get to. Today its 3 such places including his Laura Mac situated Kid Zone. Half the kids in Western Duluth can’t reach him. Russ noted that while we’ve spent money on schools we have not been spending it on kids after hour activities. This slide shows recent trends in local funding.

And finally the consequences of such abandoment as illustrated by police calls from Western Duluth (the tall bars) vs. East Duluth (the short bars)

Russ uses the word “crisis” in this slide and I think its appropriate. The calls represent the entire West Duluth population but its kids that bear much of the brunt. There are far more children in poverty in America than in other age groups. Principal Glokle told us that his Laura Mac students skewed 80% free and reduced lunch and 25% special education.

These are some of the disagreeable details any Board working with Children must consider. Not long ago I wrote about my recent visit to Denfeld where the growing inequities in our schools loomed large and stiffened my spine. Well, at the end of this meeting I got another damnable detail passed my way.

A concerned audience member sat next to me and asked if knew that money from the Jack Moon Foundation had been given to a Duluth East student. This was news to me.

I’ve written before how my Board colleague and former Denfeld Principal Bill Westholm waxes poetic about the huge scholarship funds that Denfeld’s past alumni have bequeathed to award fellow Denfeld grads to help them finance college. Denfeld has one of the nation’s largest collections of such scholarship funds. One Denfeld Fund is the Jack Moon Foundation which was bequeated to Denfeld graduates by a local attorney some years ago. You can see it Jack Moon Scholarship on this list on the Denfeld Website with its January 15th deadline for applications.

I made enough calls to confirm that this money had been used for students other than those from Denfeld. One of the Denfeld Alums I called was furious and told me how a trust advisor at Wells Fargo seemed positively delighted to award this money to Duluth East students when not enough Denfeld students applied. The Trust advisor explained the decision was made in Charlotte, North Carolina or California or some place remote from Denfeld and was necessary to avoid having the Jack Moon fund penalized by the IRS.

I couldn’t reach anyone locally but was directed up the Wells Fargo Pohne Chain where I was told they would need to confirm that I was entitled to the information. I wanted to see the Trust’s rules for dispersal of funds. Having drawn an immediate blank I bumped into an unimpeachable source who confirmed the rumor. I found Bill Westholm at the retirement Party for our Facilities Manager, Kerry Lieder later that afternoon. He agreed that it was a shame. He thought the Moon fund might be something like six or seven million dollars but now the Moon is setting over East Duluth. I doubt the donor, Moon, would be pleased. “Equity” has already been very good to East Duluth’s schools.

Mire 1 – Sweating the Details

WDIO’s coverage of the Many Rivers purchase offer:


These quotes from the story that caught my attention:

Annie Harala, board chair, did not tell the board about Many Rivers’ offers when they came in and stands by her decision. She said the board had already spoken.

“We have a policy in place in our district that states that we don’t sell to E12 institutions, and that was reaffirmed by our board earlier this summer in a very public discussion,” Harala said, referencing Duluth Edison’s offer to buy Central High School.

“We have a lot of decisions that come up month by month by month, and it’s important that we don’t get mired in that continuous detail,” Harala said.

There is a lot to unpack here but other than restating my conviction that keeping fellow board members in the dark about the opportunity to raise a million dollars or more when we are annually transferring $3.4 million a year from the classroom into Red Plan Bond repayments is 1. Either insane or 2. duplicitous. Beggers can’t be choosers and yesterday’s short letter to the editor perfectly described our plight:

I believe that if the Duluth school district was financially stable, deciding whether to sell closed buildings so they can be reused by others as schools would be a different situation. But the district isn’t (“Many Rivers wants to buy former school,” Sept. 21).

The public is the one hurting from the School Board’s decisions not to sell properties. We pay the taxes. How much money will it take to keep these empty buildings heated and up to par?

Sell these properties and let’s move on from this issue.

Rocco Schinigoi

But I’ll save my stongest thoughts for this slap in the face:

“…it’s important that we don’t get mired in that continuous detail.”

One million dollars not a small detail. We could try to remove five school board members with it at the Johnston Rate of $200,000 per board member. Its enough to hire eleven teachers for a year. Its enough to lower secondary class sizes for a year by a couple students per. Its enough to provoke an insurrection by School Board members who care about these sorts of “details” and resent being denied an opportunity to do something about them.

“Mired…in detail.”

Since I got back on the Board I have been astonished by the George Bush-like lack of curiosity about what’s going on in our school district. Until I got back on the Board there apparently was no questioning at School Board meetings. I was grateful that Annie joined Art and me in asking questions about details. The other board members seemed to take for granted that they already knew all that there was to know and in many cases their chief contribution was to tell us all how things were done in the old days. I’ll be honest I do the same thing! I’ve been gently advised that this sort of pontification just makes other board member’s roll their eyes. Tough! I started working for this district in 1981 and I have some perspective.

But mostly I ask questions – a lot of them as does Art Johnston and Alanna Oswald. I would hazzard a guess that between us we ask 80% of the questions of staff at our committee meetings and the other four members share the other 20%. Until Julio Almanza left that’s how it always was. Last night at Bulldog’s Pizza I saw my predecessor on the Board who used to drive her board colleagues crazy with detail questions that sometimes lasted until 11PM. Its rare that we go much past 9:30 these days but apparently this is too much detail for some Board members who, like me, would enjoy getting home to watch themselves on the news. Sorry, I think a lot of board members would prefer not news at all and….Sorry Fox News with your 9 PM news time. We don’t meet your deadline needs but I have to give you kudos for your Tuesday report on the Many Rivers’s purchase offer.

Three Board members are trying to negotiate a relatively painless discussion which would allow all Board members to talk about this latest offer. As the KDLH story makes clear, we three have the right to put this subject on our agenda. It is both guaranteed by state statute and our recently changed policies. You see, policies are not carved in stone. They can be changed – even a policy forbidding us to sell old empty schools to other school organizations.

a 4th Montesorri Email sent to the School Board

Good Evening,

I’ve been reading about the Many Rivers offer to purchase 3 buildings from ISD #709; it seems like a win-win situation.

I urge the school board to seriously consider this offer (it seems to still be on the table on their end) as well as open it up for community input and discussion.

Many Rivers makes many good points on why we should sell them the buildings.

I also urge the school board to re-visit the policy that so quickly turned these potential buyers away without a transparent discussion with the community.

Kind Regards,
****** ********
Property Tax Payer
Duluth, MN 55806



a third Montesorri Email sent to the School Board


I have been following the current developments surrounding Many Rivers Montessori School and your decision to deny them even a conversation about selling one of our existing vacant schools. I am a Taxpayer in Duluth (I live in lakeside). I have a 4.5 year old daughter who will be starting kindergarten next year. I would much rather send her to a school district that uses my tax dollars in a smart effective way. I am upset by your recent decisions to deny another CHILDCARE and “alternative” school the opportunity to flourish in our beautiful city. This reflects poorly on you! You say that you represent the city of Duluth residents and are upholding a current board bylaw by not selling to “competing” schools… Let’s get real!!

You are not representing the Duluth citizens! You are choosing to say that! Have you asked? Have you held a vote of the people? How many Duluth citizens need to voice an opposing opinion before you decide that this might BE WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT? I for one would be happy to volunteer circulating a petition going door to door! I am part of a moms group (many of us stay at home parents). We have started a petition and plan to break it down to neighborhoods and go door to door! We will solicit people at soccer games, gymnastics, little league, book club, dance, football and so much more. How many signatures do you need?

After collecting thousands of signatures we plan to submit our petition to every local and national news station. Start representing the City of Duluth the way we as the taxpayers wish to be represented!!
We have a good school district, but with respect you guys are making some VERY poor choices!

If you get one thing from my e-mail understand this: We plan to petition every person in Duluth to show you that we are not being represented fairly!!!

Please sell a building to the interested buyer Many Rivers Montessori.


******* ********
Tax Payer of Duluth MN

My reply:

Thank you *******.

Good luck with your petition. I’m sure you will find that many agree with you. I know I do.

3rd thought on tomorrow’s debate

This picture almost makes me forget how glad I was to have Barack Obama take George W. Bush’s place. Compared to today’s Republican nominee Bush was a saint. This remarkably able, and wholesome First Lady married another good guy who has been the subject of eight years of scurilous, vindictive, demogogic excoriation that will seem almost as incomprehensible to historians of the future as this year’s Republican nominee.

This picture is also a wonderful salve at a time of “Birther” leavened racial hurt.

2nd thought on tomorrow’s debate

For those of you who use the phrase “X may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.” Think twice before you put Donald Trump’s name in it.

If you’re a blue collar worker who lost your job to the developing world remember that before he was against trade pacts Donald Trump made use of them to set up shop everywhere else besides the United States.

If you’re a small business person remember his long record of declaring bankruptcy leaving small business on the hook for his failed investments.

If you’re ambitious and struggling remember how he made a spectator sport of mocking losers with his television mantra “you’re fired.” And don’t forget how he took his true believers who enrolled in this sham Trump University to the cleaners.

If you believe in Christian charity remember how he has used his charitable donations to pay off debts and buy political favors.

And if, like me, you value Presidential honesty remember that compared to Hillary’s failure to be candid about whether she ever failed to treat a classified email as a state secret you have in just the last week from Donald Trump a wealth of bullshit and lies that will continue for the next four years should he be elected President of the United States.

We need to think carefully about just whose son-of-a-bitch Donald Trump really is. He’s David Duke’s son-of-a-bitch. He’s Vladimir Putin’s son-of-a-bitch. Is this who American needs to be their son-of-a-bitch?

Not my tribe

My Buddy regularly hurls the word “tribal” at me as though I am guilty of being like everybody else – loyal to the people like me. I’ve given this lot a of thought. First I’ll be evasive. Yes, I’m tribal and my tribe is humanity and humanity as it exists today before we tamper with it too much. Will we become genetically engineered in the coming eons? Will we become bionically and computationally augmented? Will we become both and or something more amazing as we spread ourselves through the Milky Way. When, in a billion years, our galaxy crashes into Andromodea will our descendents, as remote from us as we are from the single celled thingies that began our journey a billion years ago be at peace among themselves or will we have a cosmic Star War going on? Will there be life on Andromeda with its own civilizations to contend with the Milky Way?

Well we on the Milky Way have a billion years to prepare for that if we don’t tear each other apart before the collision. Maybe our descendents will be some sort of cyborg that would be imposbile for primitive old me to find very agreeable.

And speaking of Earthly cyborgs this summer I have been in conflict with a nest of hornets which settled behind the eves of my house. I tried to poison them six or seven weeks ago by pumping an insecticide in the single hole they use to enter and exit. They soldiered on and multiplied but I didn’t give them much thought again until a couple weeks ago when Alanna Oswald and her daughter visited. Alanna’s daughter got stung and I decided something needed to be done.

A few days ago I bought another can of insecticide and shot it in the entrance several times over several days. It didn’t put a dent in the hornets although they refused to alight near their tunnel until the area around the hole was dry. I swear there must have been fifty hornets buzzing near by waiting for the air to clear so that they could carry bits of dead bugs to the nest. I couldn’t help but wonder how much biomass hundreds and possibly thousands of hornets were hauling into my house under the eves every day. Yesterday I fashioned a nine foot spear from with a marshmallow skewer tip. I rolled up a paper towel over the skewer and drenched it with insecticide and jammed the poisoned towel into the entrance. I kept squirting insecticide for two days on the hornets who tried to get back in. I’ll wait to remove the towel and caulk the hole for a couple weeks until I’m sure the remnants inside have canibalized each other into extinction.

This could almost be a set piece for Independence Day except that in this case I have superior weapons to the cyborgs. I am not sympathetic to hornets. I watched a Nova or a National Geographic program a decade ago about Hawaii which showed how invasive hornets are eating their way through Hawaii’s native insect population. I hope that’s not the fate of the Milky Way. Call me tribal.


I slogged through the first six chapters of my first Prophet, Isaiah, last night. It was mostly words passing by my eyes. I’ve got a lot of prophets to read through to finish the Old Testament and if they are like the first and the longest it will be very tough.

Ah but Claudia is in her third year of studies at United Theological Seminary. I told her about it and she recommended I read the book she is currently immersed in called prophetically “The Prophets.”

Its a 600 page book so if I wade into it it will only be to nibble at its edges. Apparently its a one of its kind classic from the 1960’s written by a Jewish scholar, Abraham J. Herschel. Heck that’s longer than all the prophets together but with larger print.

Herschel calls these prophets “ethical” because they weren’t like today’s pundits…..schilling for their paymaster. As a result lots of them were persecuted for telling it like it is and asking their Kings to act in Godly ways. I guess their writing may be examples of someone other than the winners writing history.

Good. I was afraid I might be the only loser writing it.

Is Chair Harala correct that the School Board reaffirmed its policy of not selling old schools to other schools?

Not exactly.

That would have required the Board to reconsider the aforementioned policy and vote for it. That’s not the question we voted on.

What we did was vote on a proposal brought to the Board by Art Johnston, Alanna Oswald and me which would have in effect allowed us to examine an offer that could have raised $14.2 million for a property that has been costing us $176,000 each of the last five years to maintain. (although Central’s vacancy has been a boon to the Minnesota Ballet which I talked the Administration into opening up so that they could clean and repair storm damaged costumes.)

This is what our rejected motion said:

WHEREAS, Pursuant to District Policy 3195 –Disposal of School District Property, All property sold shall contain a deed restriction prohibiting the property’s future use as a school or other E-12 educational facility.

WHEREAS, Pursuant to District Policy 8120 –Disposal of School Board Properties, Property shall not be released without knowledge of its proposed utilization, and no property is to be released for the purpose or subsequent purpose of usage as a school other than ISD 709. By contract, such violation shall result in the property reverting back to ISD 709.

WHEREAS, In order to consider offers to purchase School District property for the utilization as a E-12 educational facility, the School Board must suspend District Policies 3195 and 8120.

WHEREAS, The School Board of ISD 709 has received a proposal for $14.2 million from Tischer Creek Duluth Building Co., a nonprofit entity affiliated with North Star and Raleigh Charter Schools, for the Central High School site.

WHEREAS, Incomplete information or misinformation was cited as reasons for voting in a certain way in the March 31 meeting.

WHEREAS, New information has surfaced that could potentially change reasons to vote a certain way including, but not limited to: Assessed values, realtor opinions and public opinions.

WHEREAS, the fact that the land value of the Central High School site was assessed at only $8 million in the 2006 evaluation by Ramsland and Vigen, Inc. This is the most recent property assessment, and was conducted during a peak in property values in Duluth.

WHEREAS, The School Board of ISD 709 has adopted a civility resolution where we will show your evidence and share your reasoning.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT In order to fully investigate the offer, the School Board directs the Administration and School Board to initiate negotiations with Tisher Creek Duluth Building Co. to devise for the School Board’s consideration the most favorable mutual conditions for said sale including, but not limited to: provisions for enrollment caps, possible withholding of some parcels of the whole property from inclusion, potential joint usage of existing buildings, and an acceptable price for the purchase.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the School Board of Independent School District 709, St. Louis County, Minnesota shall suspend District Policies 3195 and 8120 in order to consider negotiating the current offer from Tischer Creek Duluth Building Co. for the Central High School site.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT the School Board of Independent School District 709, St. Louis County, Minnesota shall have an agenda item on a special board meeting to be held preferably by May 9th but no later than the May 17th regular school board meeting on whether to sell the Central High School site to Tischer Creek Duluth Building Co.

As Alanna has explained, suspending school board policies is a pretty routine event. The only justification for keeping additional offers from reaching the ears of the School Board was to keep them secret. It had nothing to do with the Board’s “reaffirming” Policy 3195 not to sell to other schools. It seems the secrecy was intended to make sure that the Board wouldn’t be made to look foolish a second time by once again voting not to take money for one of our many white elephants.

42 kids in a Denfeld Freshman English class is a small price to pay for our Red Plan indebtedness.

PSEO correction – setting me straight

I’m more of a eagle’s view of the forest than an ant’s view of the weeds fellow. I see us taking $3.4 million of our local tax levy which should be going to the classroom and watch helplessly as our District transfers it annually to pay off Red Plan debts that balooned out of control. I do a quick mental calculation – $3.4 million divided by 1 average teacher’s pay and benefits of $90,000 – and conclude that this results in 37.7 teachers we can’t hire to bring down Freshman English class sizes of 42 students at Denfeld.

In my recent post about the woes of Denfeld High School I concluded with the satement that PSEO (Post Seconday Education Option) classes suck money out of the Duluth Schools. Well, that is a gross oversimplification. Yeah, the kids who lost out on advanced classes we didn’t make available for them are too late to sign up for college classes but when they take those classes at UMD or Lake Superior State the financial transaction isn’t quite “suck[ing] revenues from our budget.”

Here’s part of a sympathetic email sent to me today with a far more refined explanation:

You (I hope inadvertently) forward the perception that it is the districts that “pay” for students attending PSEO. Districts do not pay tuition, they simply are not paid by the state as they did not educate the child. The state “pays” the college, not the district. The money, and actually not all of it , follows the student (even if a student is 100% PSEO, districts get a sizable hold-back). Like with open enrollment, the argument has long been crafted with the language that the districts “pay”, when in fact the money follows the student to the educational institution that actually provides the education.

I think another way to look at PSEO would be, “…they have another option available to them — college classes through PSEO, which sucks expenses from our budget and allows us to keep some state revenue even though we have no expenses to educate the student.”

Theoretically, if each and every junior and senior were to choose PSEO, the district would have no expenses to educate those students, but would still get about $800 per student they did not educate…. although I would not advocate for such, that might be an interesting and successful business model!

Anyway, the language used is perpetuated from a perspective of historic monopoly and control, where students and families were not allowed choices, and the state revenue was seen as the right and property of the monopoly system. In this perspective, when a student chooses an alternative it is only viewed as lost revenue, rather than both lost revenue AND lost expenses….like something has been “taken”

So, not to be an overly nit-picky editor…. but this sort of language is (a) not accurate, and (b) reinforces myths espoused by those opposed to choice.

Anyway, thanks for your ongoing diligence in all these issues!

And I appreciate being set straight.


Our constituents continue a new round of venting over our refusal to sell schools to “competitors:”

It seems almost moronic what your decisions have become lately. This time Montessori has offered to buy one of the 3 remaining closed schools. It was rejected by the ONE board member that even knew about the offer. Ms. Harala didn’t even think the board should be informed! She states, again, that you can’t sell to “competition”. Who the H do you think will buy these 4 buildings, a car manufacturer?????? Many Rivers is not even close to a public school and only has 115 students, more than half of them “toddlers”. We have 4 closed schools, good offers on all and you hide behind your “competition” theory. One of the reasons you gave when you sold us taxpayers the $315 million Red Plan was that you will sell the old schools and reduce the debt. Well, DO IT!!! Mr Johnston is looking like a genius right now. C.S.

I wrote back telling C.S. that I agreed.

Our “current state of affairs”

In the light of this recent offer to take empty buildings off our hands the Central sale has been reanimateded – zombie like. A new round of email is filling our email boxes. Here’s another one:

By delaying the sale of Central for the purpose of eliminating competition, you are not serving your electorate. We, the taxpayers, paid for that building (as well as others) and your responsibility is to sell it for any reasonable offer.

Eliminating competition breeds complacency. If you were to put as much effort into enhancing the educational experience of the kids as you have eliminating competition, you would drastically curb the exodus of students to area schools. Our family is one that open enrolled into another district. On my daughter’s high school hockey team (Proctor/Hermantown Mirage) there were eight families originally from Duluth- 40% of the team! That’s alarming. When including brothers and sisters, you’ve got 15 kids that left 709 for your “competition”. Don’t think it’s just for sports either- it was more about your current state of affairs. When you spend millions of dollars (without a referendum) to close the schools, then sit on this vacated prime property while the structure rots, you have lost site of your purpose. You have no legitimate excuse- stop the foolishness.

Bait and Switch at Denfeld

Don’t get me wrong. That last post which conludes with a litany of challenges facing Denfeld is only meant in extreme sympathy. I know we have a School Board that currently operates under the delusion that if we just keep out troubles out of the public eye everyone will be much happier. I don’t buy that. Silence is not golden. It permits inaction.

There is one more awful irony at Denfeld. Because of its smaller population its most academically ambitious students face a special hurdle signing up for the more rigorous CITS and AP classes that many universities and entities awarding scholarships want to see on their transcripts. Yet when 45 or 50 students sign up in Spring for an advanced class than can only take 35 or 40 students a handful of kids will miss out if we only offer a single class. “Singleton” classes are common at Denfeld. Multiply this by a half dozen or more advanced classes and the Denfeld high achievers are out of luck.

They have another option available to them – college classes through PSEO programs which require ISD 709 to pay college tuition which sucks revenues from our budget. But by the time Fall arrives and we close off CTIS and AP classes to these students it is too late to sign up for college coursework.

So one of the things we encourage disappointed students to sign up for is to act as tutors for their fellow high schools students. This is a worthy and noble thing for these students to do. And yet it sticks in my craw to know we are asking them to do the work of teachers we were too stingy or impoverished to hire in the first place.

That’s a bait and switch scheme worthy of Donald Trump.