Swords into Plowshares #1 A Disclaimer

I wrote recently that I’m keen to turn my sword into a plowshare. My sword, as anyone who has been stuck by it knows, is my blog. I refused tonight, during a delicate closed meeting, to refrain from writing about Edison’s unexpected (to me) renewed offer to purchase Central High. But I still have this sword.

Let me make clear that a sword will not bring about the sale of Central in the brief 30 day window available to us. In fact, tonight when WDIO announced that Chair Harala promised that we would meet in the next thirty days my first reaction was “that will run out the clock.” Indeed April 15th, our deadline to agree to a Central Sale, is less that thirty days away.

I desperately hope that was not her intent but the week after next is a spring holiday. That will only leave five measly business days to ink a deal. I want our public meeting next week to hear from our constituents.

“No date has been set for the public meeting to review and discuss the Central property. Harala says it should be within the next 30 days.”

I did make one promise tonight. I will not quote other Board members from the closed meeting or attribute words to them. That is only fair for someone manning a plowshare. In fact, I’m not at liberty to talk about our meeting. It is enough to know that we plan to have a public meeting. However, over the next few days I will take some of the most difficult arguments that were raised in the closed session and address them from my point of view. AND IF ANYONE THINKS I SPEAK FOR THE ENTIRE SCHOOL BOARD ON THIS BLOG YOU ARE MISTAKEN. I speak for myself and myself alone. I promised to write that disclaimer in my blog at our meeting tonight. In fact, until the 30 days is up I will begin each Sword into Plowshare’s Post with the Disclaimer which I will link to this promise. That is a small price to pay to win over rather than alienate my school board colleagues. Beating up my colleagues would only serve to nix the sale.

I believe that this sale could be the most important action taken in Duluth to bring our community together since the Red Plan tore it apart. I was delighted after coming home from four-and-a-half hours of School Boarding to discover that retired Mayor Ness agrees with me. He said so in a long post he put on Facebook. I was even more thrilled to see that the post already had over One thousand five hundred likes. I added mine to the mix. Is it any wonder this Mayor of eight years retired with an approval rating of 90%?

Whoo boy. I just checked again and another 100 had been added to the “likes.” If you can get into Facebook to like Don’s post this is the link: https://www.facebook.com/ness.duluth

Otherwise here is what Don wrote:

I believe ISD 709 should sell Central High School to Edison.

I apologize in advance for the length of this message… but it requires a full explanation.

When I was mayor, I tried to be careful not to weigh in publicly on the issues facing other institutions. Instead, I’d try to reach out privately and make my pitch. This was always especially difficult on school district issues because of the impact on the health of our community. I like and respect Bill Gronseth and so, for the most part, I resisted commenting publicly. But now, as a private citizen and taxpayer, I feel a deep need to weigh in on the Edison high school issue.

Bill and I had several conversations over the years on this subject as I encouraged him to consider the option. Of course ISD 709 wants to avoid the creation of another competing high school and I completely understand their reasons. But ultimately, that’s not 709’s decision to make. Edison High School will be built, hundreds of students will attend that high school, and it most likely will create difficult issues for the district in response. The point is, those impacts exist regardless if Edison builds new or buys Central.

Now consider these points:

– Use of Central as a high school (for which it is designed) maximizes its value as an asset. There are massive challenges to convert it to any other use. Most developers see the structure as a liability – an additional expense of over a million dollars to tear down in order to redevelop that land in a future phase. To most traditional developers, the existence of the school greatly REDUCES the value of the overall site.

– Edison currently plans to build a high school off of Rice Lake Road – they have the land and they have the funding mechanism. Unless something happen, it will be built. But building on that site is fraught with negative impacts on the community. Anyone who drives Rice Lake Road understands the traffic impact the current school has. The school is distant from the core of the city and will build on a challenging and valuable piece of green space currently well-used by the community.

– The absence of a public high school in the middle of our city has had a negative effect on our community. There is no denying this fact. Yes, I’m a Central Grad. Yes, I’m still upset with the decision to close the school. But face facts, the decision to close the school has created the demand for Edison High School. If we still had Central High School – there is no possibility of Edison High School. 709 needs to own the consequence of THEIR decision.

– The interest of taxpayers is clear. 709 can secure $14M+ from the sale of the school or they can discount the value of the property by the cost to tear down the structure (by more than a million dollars). Edison will be using public dollars from the state to either build a brand new structure (that will provide a lesser student experience) or they can use those dollars to pay 709 (and breathe new life into a building that is meaningful to many and would serve students in our region well).

Consider this scenario: Edison spends $14M+ to build a brand new school on a site with limited public benefit. They will ultimately bring hundreds of students to the school which will negatively impact 709’s operating budget. Meanwhile, 709 struggles to sell the Central site in large part because of the difficulty of converting the school to any other purpose – if a buyer is found, the site is discounted in order to pay for the demolition of a perfectly fine school. Unfortunately, at the moment, this appears to be the most likely scenario. In my mind, it is outrageous.

I would see Edison’s offer as a starting point for negotiations. I could see a scenario in which 709 sells the school building and grounds on the back side of the building to Edison and then retains the land on the hillside to sell to a developer (the most valuable parcels). In this scenario, 709 could realize considerably more than $14M for this site.

After taking a big chunk of that money for their budget reserve, they should use several million to enhance facilities and programming at 709 schools in West Duluth to make the strongest possible pitch for families to choose Denfeld and help bring balance to enrollment.

It will take great courage and leadership to make this happen. There are powerful forces and voices that will resist the discussion, much less the actions necessary to make it happen. But it’s worth it. It’s the right thing to do for Duluth – it will help heal lingering Red Plan wounds. It will demonstrate that our interests for this community and for families living here take a higher priority than narrow institutional interests.

The School Board should take a small, yet incredibly bold and courageous, step to say, “yes, we will sit down with Edison officials in order to explore options.” That’s all it needs to be at this point. But don’t hide behind a “policy” – that policy was set by a school board over a decade ago and didn’t prevent Edison from building a brand new school. This school board can consider the reality facing our community today and they can choose to change that policy in order to consider ALL options for the public assets over which they control.

This is far beyond what I had planned to write. In fact, I didn’t want to weigh in on any prominent community issue until much later this year. I feel very anxious about sharing these thoughts. And yet, I feel like I have to share this perspective. This is far too important an issue for the city we all love to let pride, personalities, or politics get in the way of I believe is in the community’s best interest.

Please consider contacting your school board member to encourage them to fully consider the possibilities so that we are not faced with deep regret for the missed opportunity.

Thanks for reading.

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