My letter to the Governor

July 10, 2007

Governor Pawlenty
Office of the Governor
130 State Capitol
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
St. Paul, MN 55155

Dear Governor Pawlenty,

Johnson Controls has advised the Duluth School Board that five long standing Minnesota Statutes relieve the District from having to offer a bond referendum to the voters. The statutes are: 465.71; 123B.40; 123B.62; 123B65; 123B71; and 465.71. Up to now these laws have only been used to authorize modest building projects to make schools handicap accessible and/or compliant with fire and safety codes.

Told that they have the power to authorize a bond without a referendum the Duluth School Board, on a 4 to 3 vote, narrowly approved a $257 million bond which bypasses the voters. You’re Administration, more specifically your Education/Finance Departments, is the only thing that can stop this unprecedented bonding plan from proceeding.

Johnson Controls has an obvious conflict of interest in recommending a voter free bond. They stand to earn at least $4.5 million supervising the building program if your Administration approves the plan.

Until Johnson Controls got into the game our school board had been debating whether we should deal with declining enrollments by closing elementary schools or closing secondary schools. I know because I served on the School Board from 1996 until 2004. If anyone had asked me whether closing a high school would cost Duluth over a quarter-billion dollars I would have laughed but that’s just what could happen.

In addition to its remarkable interpretation of Minnesota’s statutes Johnson Controls conducted a survey of Duluth voters and reported that a majority of them were willing to dispense with a referendum. Of course, as you well know, a poll is no substitute for an election to determine the wishes of the people. However, this poll result is being used by the Board to justify bypassing the voters. Let me tell you about some of the peculiarities of this survey.

For one thing the survey did not point out that the bonding plan will cost $257 million dollars, probably a state record. Additionally, the questions on the survey were prefaced with biased verbiage with pushed participants to answer its questions in predictable ways. More troubling is the testimony of two people who reported that surveyors first asked them their ages and who, upon admitting to be over the age of 55, were told that there would be no need to question them further. I too am over 55 as are perhaps half the voters of Duluth. Apparently our opinions, those of us no longer likely to have children in the Duluth Schools, were unwanted. After winnowing out the older voters the surveyors for Johnson Controls explained misleadingly: that it was now common practice in Minnesota not to hold referendum elections. Under these circumstances it’s not surprising that an astounding 77% of survey respondents said that it would be OK to dispense with a referendum. This grossly manipulated result flies in the face of yet another finding from the poll. The surveyors found that a majority of the people whose opinions were permitted to be recorded did not want to see an increase in their property taxes. And how much would local taxes increase if the School Board gets its way? $257 million dollars divided by the 86,000 residents of Duluth will mean $3,000 in new taxes for every man woman and child in Duluth not counting 20 year’s worth of interest on the bonds.

I trust that your governing philosophy hasn’t changed in the last two years since you challenged Duluth’s voters to pass a referendum for a sales tax to finance the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center expansion. Many of us in Duluth are now counting on you to uphold the historic role of bonding referenda in Minnesota’s school districts.

If your Administration allows Johnson Controls’s interpretation of the law to stand it will become a precedent for the several hundred other school districts across the state. It will be a terrible precedent for voters and it will place the State of Minnesota in financial jeopardy as one after another grandiose school building plans are authorized by school boards which may be long gone before the fiscal dangers of their undemocratic building plans become apparent.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the first plan that Johnson Controls handed the School Board, which would reportedly have addressed the principal needs of the district, had a much more modest $40 million dollar price tag than the quarter-billion-dollar plan that now confronts us. Duluth’s voters need to vote on this.

Sincerely,

Harry R. Welty
2101 E 4th St.
Duluth, MN 55812

cc MN Education Commissioner, Alice Seagren
Duluth School Board member, Tom Hustad
Editor, Duluth News Tribune, Robin Washington