“A pretty nice problem”

Today’s story about ISD 709’S mid-year budgetary fixes prompted a friend to email me this little bit of twaddle from the Trib’s Editorial Board.

Published July 23, 2010

Our view: Duluth School Board has mighty nice problem

What would you do with an extra $32 million? Duluth School Board members will soon be grappling with that question as school construction and reconstruction rolls on, ahead of schedule and well under budget.

The school district’s $296 million Long-Range Facilities Plan included an $11 million contingency fund to cover change orders and unforeseen expenses. Setting aside less than 4 percent of total costs was fiscally responsible and just good planning. But it’s starting to look like the district won’t have to tap into the fund, meaning the money will be available.

Also available are $21 million in construction and other savings realized when bonds were able to be sold so cheaply, when Duluth’s tax capacity grew more rapidly than projected and when construction bids came in lower than anticipated, a direct result of a struggling economy and contractors’ desire for work.

“The board now has all kinds of flexibility,” Superintendent Keith Dixon said in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page. “The board couldn’t be in a stronger position.” The message is you get great buildings and you’re in a great financial position.”

The board’s options for its unexpected $32 million include reinvesting the money and paying off bonds sooner, an attractive, responsible choice even if not a sexy one.

But the board also could stand pat with work already started and already planned and use the money to reduce the tax increase district residents are bearing to help pay for the facilities overhaul. That tax increase was $110 a year on the average-sized home, with $3 annual increases. Few district residents would balk at a reduction in their tax bills.

Or board members could do more work, up to $32 million of additional construction to add features and amenities not in the original designs or plans. Board members already have poured about $25 million of savings back into the schools, to the delight and thanks of teachers, students and others across the district. The additions have included eight-lane pools instead of six-lane pools in the two middle schools, a new boiler and playground at Lakewood Elementary and a media center twice as large as originally conceived at Homecroft Elementary, to name just a few examples. The district has a complete list of “value-added benefits,” as Dixon called additional improvements to Duluth ‘s schools.

School Board members could even pour some of the $32 million into learning initiatives and classroom programming since some of the $32 million is from operational savings. That’s perhaps the most attractive and responsible choice of all.

“I think it’s going to be a mix of all of those things,” Dixon said. The trick will be to determine what will be most popular, both politically and practically.

So, what do you think? What should the School Board do with its unexpected $32 million? Let your School Board members know directly. Or drop a line to letters@duluthnews.com and we’ll publish your ideas in an upcoming edition.

No reason to let the School Board decide on its own what to do with an extra $32 million.

The most interesting sentence in the Budget story is this one:

Members Judy Seliga-Punyko, Art Johnston and Gary Glass voted against the measure.

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