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Few issues in my memory—perhaps none—have generated the kind of public outrage and disbelief as the Duluth school board’s recent 4-3 refusal to sell Central High School to Edison Charter Schools for $14.2 million.
The Central High School campus was abandoned in 2011 as part of the school district’s $300 million long-range facilities plan, more commonly called the Red Plan. It has been a drain on the district ever since, costing about $170,000 per year to maintain as it crumbles on the hill. One other prospective buyer surfaced during that time, a developer who offered $10 million for the property in 2015 and then backed out of the deal. Edison’s offer seemed spectacular, unbelievable.
I won’t dwell on the details here. Suffice it to say that the idea of selling anything to a competitor was something that four board members simply could not tolerate, even if it meant losing $14.2 million. Judging by the flood of letters to the editor and emails to the school board that continues today, a month later, this was not a popular decision.
During the run-up to the Red Plan, when school administrators and Johnson Controls consultants were working hard to convince citizens that the way to address declining enrollment was to spend a quarter-billion dollars on new schools, one important point of their argument was that the school district would be able to defray part of the cost by selling off old schools. In a report issued on August 8, 2007, superintendant Keith Dixon breezily promised that sales of old schools and other property would net the school district $23,370,000 by 2012, which would be applied to the Red Plan. Boosters of the plan talked about the $23.4 million as if it were a sure thing.
Reality has turned out much differently. On April 24, 2016, a local attorney took it upon himself to email the school board an eye-opening analysis of what has become of school district properties under the Red Plan. With the exception of the Facilities Management Building, which sold for its Red Plan valuation of $500,000, not a single school property has sold for more than 45 percent of the value listed in Dixon’s report; a number of old schools have been given away. Rather than the $23.4 million we were supposed to have by 2012, the amount earned thus far from property sales has been $3.1 million.
“The most important valuation of district properties is the disposition value listed in the Red Plan,” wrote the attorney. “The reason this valuation is critical is because it represents an amount the district has actually borrowed and spent in anticipation of selling properties identified as no longer needed as part of ISD 709’s Long Range Facilities Plan.”
In other words, whether the properties are sold or not, the Red Plan construction bonds still have to be paid; as a result, money has been taken from other funds that the district can ill afford to tap. “Money that should otherwise be spent ‘in the classroom’ has to be spent ‘on the classroom,’ which only perpetuates the district’s financial problem that causes more students to leave the district because of reduced offerings ….The sale of Central for $14.2 million would not only be the district’s first sale at a profit, [it would also help cover the] deficit created by the sales of Woodland, Morgan Park, Lincoln Park, and the non-sale of Piedmont.”
In calling attention to the disconnect between promises and reality, the attorney’s email highlighted a problem that has vexed me for years—the tendency of people who are pursuing a beautiful dream to make wildly inaccurate claims in order to see the dream realized. I call this the Say Anything To Get It Built Syndrome, or SATGIBS.
Generally, the bigger the project, the more severely its boosters are afflicted with SATGIBS. When the Great Lakes Aquarium was being planned, I watched in fascination as projected attendance figures rose and rose without any basis whatsoever. A consultant’s original estimate was 325,000 visitors a year. As the project got bigger and more controversial, the consultant suddenly changed his estimate to 350,000 to 400,000—“probably,” he told the Duluth News Tribune, “in the upper end of that range.” Why the change? Because the aquarium’s boosters, suffering from SATGIBS, needed bigger numbers to justify the project. When the new projections came out, they threw a party.
The media, who are supposed to be watchdogs, often have SATGIBS themselves. Far from questioning the aquarium’s ever-rising attendance figures, the newspapers and TV stations reported them with joy. On August 11, 1999, the News Tribune reported that, according to aquarium marketing director Paula Davidson, “The aquarium is projected to draw almost 443,000 visitors in its first year….Attendance is projected to dip to 394,000 the second year and level out at approximately 403,000 a year in the aquarium’s third year and beyond.” The high point in the made-up number sweepstakes occurred on July 23, 2000, when the News Tribune published a special section on the aquarium. “Annual attendance has been projected to range from 399,000 to 456,000,” wrote reporter Jason Skog, starry-eyed.
Of course, paid attendance never came close to the rosy predictions. The aquarium opened in 2000 and sank like a stone financially. Numerous bailouts followed. The aquarium never made a single bond payment, leaving the city holding a $12 million obligation. Today, attendance has stabilized at about one-third of projected levels. In 2015, the aquarium attracted about 135,000 visitors—making it the most-visited paid attraction in Duluth, albeit one that still requires a $360,000 annual operating subsidy from the city, as well as occasional gifts, grants and other assistance.
We saw SATGIBS at play in the Ness Administration’s now-shelved plans to build a new library downtown. Certain numbers in the consultant’s report were inflated, and other numbers reduced or ignored, in order to present the best possible case for a new library.
When Spirit Mountain wanted to spend its capital maintenance budget to build an alpine coaster in 2009, boosters insisted that the coaster would earn enough revenue to replenish the capital maintenance fund and help the ski hill pay for a new water line. The way things turned out, the city ended up paying for the alpine coaster AND the water line—and Spirit Mountain continues to struggle with capital maintenance.
If nothing else, SATGIBS teaches us that we should always treat promises and predictions with skepticism. A project’s wonderfulness does not guarantee its success. Consultants and experts are often wrong. And when the consultants themselves stand to personally benefit from the project, as was the case with Johnson Controls and the Red Plan, it is probably best to ignore their findings altogether.
I have a simple idea that might help to alleviate the problems created by SATGIBS: When we hear numbers, we divide them by two. If we had done this with the aquarium’s attendance projections, we would have been expecting to welcome 200,000 visitors instead of 400,000—a number much closer to reality, though still high. Of course, a predicted visitation of 200,000 would have threatened the project, because a case could not be made for breaking even at that level. We might have even had to—horrors!—build a smaller aquarium.
If we had divided the Red Plan’s estimated property sales receipts by two, instead of $23.4 million we would have only been expecting to collect $11.7 million—again, still higher than what we actually did collect, but closer to reality, and more useful for budgeting.
A particularly irritating side effect of SATGIBS is that no one afflicted with it ever takes responsibility when projects flop and promises turn out empty. They only say that it’s “time to move on.” More than anything, SATGIBS sufferers love to move on; there are so many other projects crying out for their optimism and support.
School Board Rules of Order
On May 2, 2016, I attended my first school board meeting in 15 years. It was a special meeting that had been called by the three members who voted in the minority on the Central High School sale—Art Johnston, Alanna Oswald and Harry Welty. They wanted to go over aspects of that debate again, saying that relevant information had not been presented a month earlier. I didn’t think they had a snowball’s chance of changing anyone’s vote, but I was interested to watch the show. I needed a break from covering the city council.
Right away, the meeting started off weird. The board’s agenda was different from the agenda that the minority members had called the meeting to discuss. Apparently, board chair Annie Harala had taken it upon herself to change the agenda—which, as far as I could tell, completely eliminated the purpose of the meeting. I was flabbergasted. It violated…well, democracy itself. Openness, transparency, allowing minority voices to speak…was she allowed to do that?
Apparently, yes. The school board does not operate with the same practices of openness that I am used to seeing at the city council. For regular meetings, the school board chair and clerk set the agenda behind closed doors with the school’s administrators. If three board members co-sponsor a resolution, it gets put on the agenda. If you are two members or—god forbid—even one who wants something on the agenda, good luck. And now, apparently, as we had just seen, if three members did bring something forward, and the board chair didn’t care for it, the board chair could change the agenda.
Tonight, fortunately, the school board was feeling generous. After a lot of discussion back and forth, with the most ridiculous twists and turns, Member Welty moved to amend the agenda to return it to its original form and the board, showing great inclusiveness and tolerance, unanimously voted to adopt it. But, to my way of thinking, there should have been no discussion—that vote shouldn’t have been necessary. The minority was still under the heel of the majority; they were only allowed their agenda item because the majority lifted up the heel and agreed to it. The vote could just as easily have gone the other way.
I put my name on the sign-up sheet to speak. Everyone else wanted to talk about Central, but I had a few things to say about parliamentary procedure.
It was a long meeting. Many people spoke. Many were in favor of selling Central. Several spoke in favor of not selling it. I wasn’t paying much attention, as I was busy working on my statement. A major purpose of Robert’s Rules of Order, which the school board claimed to follow, was to ensure that the minority had a voice. I wrote that down. Audience members on both sides of the Central debate periodically burst into applause, interrupting my train of thought. I made a note to mention that public meetings were no place for clapping.
I perked up when Judy Seliga-Punyko approached the microphone. She was a former two-term school board member and board chair. Today, as a citizen, Seliga-Punyko spoke in favor of not selling Central to Edison. She spent some time trash-talking Edison, but seemed almost wistful when talking about Edison’s un-elected board. “It would be really interesting if our school board was able to put teachers and parents that are supportive of ISD 709 on [the school] board and run the district. I think you would probably see a big difference in support of the school district. I would love to have that kind of a board, where we could have people that…support the school district.”
What she meant was: No minority voices. No contrarians. No pesky voters placing dissenters in everyone’s way. Nothing but smooth, creamy harmony. It was nice that Judy was so upfront about her totalitarianism. I wrote that down, then crossed it out. I needed to stay on point.
She wasn’t done. “You know, I am concerned, too, because I heard things about a couple of the board members kind of negotiating behind the scenes a little bit with Edison, and I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I would question them.”
I glanced over at a poster on the wall that promoted the Rules of Civility. Number four was “Don’t gossip.” I tried to think of some choice details about Judy Seliga-Punyko to add to my statement. “I heard she’s incontinent. I don’t know if that’s true or not…”
Finally the board took up the discussion. It went as expected. Everybody said their piece and nobody changed their vote. It ended up 4-3, as before. I folded my statement neatly and straightened up in my chair, ready to be called.
“Seeing no other lights, our meeting is adjourned,” said Chair Harala. “Thank you.”
What? I got up, approached the chair and introduced myself. “I had signed up to speak on parliamentary procedure.”
She grabbed her pile of papers. “Okay. I called your name, correct?”
She looked worried, flipping through papers. She found the one with my name on it. “Oooooh, John. I’m really sorry.”
“I was going to comment on the way the meeting began,” I said.
“Well, how would you like to comment?”
I laughed. “I comment better in front of a crowd.” Actually, I had hoped to speak during the meeting, to have my comments included in the official record. Talking to somebody after the meeting was just chit-chat. And I had waited so long! I launched into it. ”According to what I saw happen, three minority members can call a special meeting and then the chair has the prerogative to set the agenda for that meeting?”
She nodded yes.
“So three members could decide that bullying was an issue that really needed to be studied and they wanted to call a special meeting on it, and then the chair could decide that, ‘Maybe we should talk about water fountains instead.’ And the chair could set the agenda to deal with water fountains. That’s what I got out of it, and I just think that this board needs to move more towards transparency and letting the minority voice be heard.”
She stared at me. “Did you see that move forward that we did?” She was talking about the unanimous vote that restored the minority members’ agenda.
“I’m glad you all voted that way—“ I said.
“—but it still puts the minority at the whim of the majority. And to me, that vote should not even have been necessary. The minority should have called their special meeting and had their special meeting. There shouldn’t have been any of this chicanery of changing the agenda.”
Chair Harala didn’t care for that. “Please watch your language, sir.”
As I made my way into the night, committer of language violations, I reflected that I would have to start keeping a closer eye on the school board.