Compare and contrast newspaper vigilance – Nay

Published December 18, 2012, 12:00 AM
Our view: Let’s work with district this time
The tax increase promises to be a big one.

(I love the last sentence: “In other words, more of us can do what too few of us did when the Red Plan was being written.”)

The tax increase promises to be a big one.”

Double digits. Nearly 12 percent. And on the heels of an expensive, long-range, building-improvement program that already taxed Duluth school district taxpayers.

Yet School Board meetings have been quiet and largely unattended. The front steps of government buildings haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling a tax revolt. And there have been few, if any, letters to the editor of protest.

Are district residents choosing to tune out until decisions are made and their tax bills arrive and it’s too late, the way far too many did back when the Red Plan was being developed?

We’d prefer to maintain that many district residents simply understand, as Superintendent Bill Gronseth said in a meeting this month with News Tribune editorial board members, that, “The district is really in dire financial straits,” and that, “Whether you hated the long-range facilities plan or loved it or are just sick of hearing about it, we have to move on as a community.”

Dire is a strong word but not inaccurate in this case, with the School Board expected to vote tonight on the tax increase.

The district’s fund reserve, a healthy $6.8 million a year ago, has shrunk by nearly half to $3.6 million. The fund

reserve has had to be drained to cover Red Plan debt payments. And that’s been necessary because school buildings and other district properties closed under the Red Plan haven’t sold and haven’t brought in the expected $16 million to cover the debt payments.

It’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback and charge that the district inflated the value of its surplus properties. But the values were determined independently. As Gronseth told the News Tribune’s Jana Hollingsworth for a story in Monday’s paper, “You make the best decisions you can, given the information you have at the time.”

There also doesn’t seem to be reason to suspect Duluth broker F.I. Salter isn’t doing all it can to get the properties sold.

“I don’t have any complaints about their services,” Gronseth said.

F.I. Salter has been paid $53,680 by the district since July 2007 to market, manage, purchase and sell homes and other properties related to the Red Plan, the district’s executive director of business services Bill Hanson told the Opinion page. There’s been plenty of interest in the properties, including the hilltop Central High School and Secondary Technical Center, but the real estate market has gone soft with the recession. The market is far different now than when the estimates were first made. Valuations and expected revenue from sales of properties already have been reduced to reflect economic realities outside of the district’s control.

Selling the surplus properties definitely would help the school district’s bottom line. But even without the Red Plan, the district would be facing financial challenges. State funding has been flat, and federal money for education has been diverted by the billions in recent years to help balance the state budget.

Adding to the financial challenges are upcoming teacher contract negotiations and the expectation of a levy referendum this fall to improve classroom learning and class sizes.

There’s much to discuss beyond tonight’s School Board meeting to approve a 2013 budget and that likely 11.9 percent increase in the school district’s share of property tax bills.

So, it can be seen as good news that the district is planning a fresh round of as many as 50 community meetings this winter to brainstorm what we want from our schools and how we’re willing to pay for it. The community meetings are expected to be announced between Christmas and New Year’s.

“It’s about bringing people together to clear the clutter,” Gronseth told editorial board members. “It’s about winning trust back. … As a community we have some challenges ahead of us.”

All of us will be needed to brainstorm solutions and to offer input for hard decisions. So, when the community meetings are announced, let’s mark our calendars and then let’s go. Let’s carefully consider the information and thoughtfully and productively respond and participate.

In other words, more of us can do what too few of us did when the Red Plan was being written.

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