Otto immobile

Two months ago I gave the State Auditor, Rebeccca Otto, a letter about my concerns about the School Board’s apparent violation of its public duty to review and vote on large expenditures of the public’s money. For weeks I wondered whether anyone had seen the document other than my blog’s eight loyal readers. Well a couple weeks ago I got a call from Ms. Otto’s office. A subordinate had noticed it and gave me a call back wondering how it was connected to the review of the District’s finances that was prompted by the petition Loren Martell circulated to voters back in 2011. I was a little tipsy when he called and in too jovial a mood to breath fire. The next day I sent him an email with a few smoke signals in it:

Mr. Kerr,

Thank you, very much, for your call yesterday in the late afternoon. I was very glad to hear from Auditor Otto’s office. You happened to call me when I was in the middle of a very long and intense conversation with my wife, a retired corporate executive and current seminarian, about my preoccupation with the trials of the Duluth Public Schools. I jokingly told an old School Board buddy at a high school graduation recently that it was a “Chamber of Horrors.” As I have devoted the last twenty-five years to the politics of the School District I know a bit about our difficulties. We currently have the most beautiful new schools in Minnesota with upwards of fifty kids in some classrooms. In four years our CFO projects a sixteen million deficit which could be taken care of by culling another 200 teachers from our already significantly diminished staff. Who knows? Maybe we’ll enter the record books with sixty or seventy kids in a class. My wife, the corporate executive, was challenging my earnest fears with sound corporate skepticism when you called us. We had been talking earnestly under a warm sun in our patio while polishing off a bottle of pinot grigio. Claudia detests politics so she left when I got your call. Afterward she commented sympathetically that “Mr. Kerr is probably a decent fellow who will be working late into the evening on the public’s business” and then she abused me for making you put up with my tipsy conviviality before you plunged into a long night. That was her as a seminarian.

At age 63 and a long eccentric career of trying to find a place in Duluth’s politics, it has fallen to me to save the Duluth schools. I am, as this email suggests, an unorthodox politician. Coincidentally, my Grandfather was the State Auditor of Kansas. He never lost an election. A staunch Republican George Robb defied his Governor, Alf Landon, who had appointed him to fill the vacancy of publically disgraced Democrat, by refusing to fire all the Democrats in the office. He kept them on because, as he told Landon, they were good people and knew their jobs. My Mother told me this story when I was young and it has sadly infected my entire life during which politics has become a blood sport. Maybe that explains my checkered career. Oh, and lest you think my Grandfather was a fan of Democrats he told me when I was twelve that the worst mistake he made in his life was the one vote he gave a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, who broke his promise to keep America out of War. (The great irony of this is that George Robb volunteered and won a Congressional Medal of Honor in that war. Go figure)

Your call took me from intense and defensive concentration as my wife second guessed my school board actions, and knocked me into a jolly, tipsy, good mood. I was simply delighted to get a call back from Auditor Otto’s office weeks after turning in my complaint.

Of course, being every bit as skeptical as my wife, I couldn’t help but remember that Ms. Otto suddenly finds herself with a rich, ambitious, DFL challenger in an election year that she has angered many Democrats in Northeastern Minnesota. I also wonder how the 4,000 occasional readers of my blog will react to this email to you should I put it up on the Internet.

Those readers have already seen the letter I took to the Auditor’s office. They may be as curious as I am to see how Auditor Otto’s office will react to my taking her official warnings seriously. Was she serious when she said elected signers of public contracts should desist until their entire elective body approves expenditures?

Our many controversies have already prompted one of Ms. Otto’s Republican challengers to call my lone ally on our school board to inquire about the larger audit that you initiated last year after receiving Mr. Loren Martel’s petition in 2012. It seems that there is hell to pay in our district when Board members ask tough questions. The Administration recently reassigned my ally’s wife (significant other really) from the job that she loves on bafflingly suspect grounds for “her own good.” Even a casual observer might wonder if this is some sort of payback to punish a dissenting school board member. It came about after our inquiries to your office regarding the million dollar change orders that our Board never approved.

Ours is, of course, not the only bone headed school district. Many have been inspired by the scrappy little Timberjay newspaper in northern St. Louis County. Its vigilance in exposing the careless and costly mistakes of the St. Louis County Schools has rallied the legislators of both parties to support the Timberjay with unanimous and bipartisan legislation.

I hope the Minnesota Auditor’s Office is up to challenge of giving good direction to Duluth’s troubled schools. My Grandfather told my Mother (in a more chauvinistic age) that a “man has lost everything when he’s lost his reputation.” I hope Minnesota’s current Auditor can help the Duluth schools recover much of their tarnished reputation and put things to rights as my Grandfather would have. Sadly the State of Kansas decided some decades after his retirement to abolish the Auditor’s office as duplicative and unnecessary. I’d hate for a similar fate to befall our Auditor’s Office. My Grandfather had a high regard for one of Mrs. Otto’s predecessors, Stafford King, who had an even longer tenure in office in Minnesota than my Grandfather’s 24 years in Kansas.


Harry Welty
Duluth School Board member (no longer so tipsy)

On Fri, Jun 6, 2014 at 5:39 PM, Mark Kerr wrote:

> Mr. Welty,
> Thank you for speaking with me this afternoon. My contact information
> is listed below.
> Sincerely,
> Mark F. Kerr
> Assistant Legal Counsel
> Office of the State Auditor

Supporters of Ms. Otto’s reelection bid might want to send her this post to make her aware I’m strongly inclined to pen a poisonous critique of how she handles her office and mail it off to several of Minnesota’s daily papers before the August primary.

About the author