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In my last column I pointed out that Board member Johnston can be overbearing. Of course you have to be pretty strong-willed to take on the movers and shakers that run this town. When I first met Art, at a fund raiser in a western Duluth bar, I told him I was looking for the anti-Grover. I wanted someone on the Board who would never, EVER sell out to the bunch that was jamming the Red Plan down our throats.
Obviously, I found the right guy. As I’ve written previously, the powers-that-be in the boardroom could strip the Lone Ranger, whip him to within an inch of his life, hang him upside down from chains on the wall behind the Board dais, and he’d still yell out: “UNBELIEVABLE the way this joint is run! Point of order! Point of order!”
Thank God we don’t have an actual monarchy in Duluth. Enforcement of the Red Reign would have likely included installation of a row of stocks facing Superior Street on the Minnesota Power plaza.
The modern rulers of our town enforce their will through more sophisticated means, their favorite M.O. being character assassination. Several citizens received a stinging verbal stoning during the Red Plan, but now our rulers have branched out. On the warpath again, many of the same “leaders” who gave us the wonderful Red Plan are no longer content with just slandering individuals. They’ve engaged themselves in a full-out verbal assault on an entire organization.
What a despicable thing to do.
Let me state frankly that Edison got a bum rap in Duluth. You’d swear the charter school was being run by a mobster organization, they way they’re being treated. What crime put Edison in the retributive bulls-eye of the power structure of our town? The educational organization made a generous offer exceeding the asking price on a piece of educational property that had been sitting empty for five years--and now, because of the DFL and the unions, will likely be sitting empty for at least six.
A broke school district turns down $14.2 million while it cuts its budget and throws away a million dollars in unnecessary expense, and Edison gets beaten up!? Whenever the Red Plan crowd gets involved in any kind of civic issue, logic is immediately put on life-support, the first wound inflicted in the new war they’ve initiated. The Red Plan’s strongest advocate, Judy Seliga-Punkyo, lobbied hard for the School Board not to suspend policy and allow the sale of district property to a competitor, because she said the policy “was put in place to help protect the public schools.” Then she went on the attack against Edison, a public school…
“The one thing I have to question is, why did this happen at the last minute? All of a sudden is Edison desperate? Did something happen with the property that they were looking at building on? I don’t know the answer (a rare admittance for J. S.-P.,) but it seems kind of strange that all of a sudden this came up. I do want to say a couple of things about Edison, about charter schools in general, because in the last six months there has been another State in our country that has turned charter schools unconstitutional, because they do not have an elected Board like you all (acknowledging our infamously effective ISD 709 school board) are elected. They are like if you put together a PTA Board or a booster club. They are NOT an elected Board, and yet they receive State money. And that is--that really kind of troubled me when I found that out, when I was on the school board…”
Judy S.-P. went on to tell everyone how much she’d learned as a school board member about district finances, then took one of her trademark veers into one of her favorite scapegoat complaints: State mandates. For years, Judy has repeatedly made the charge that the rules around mandates are unfairly tilted towards and (exploited by) charter schools, like Edison:
“That is one of the things in this process that is a huge issue with our public schools in our State, where you are mandated to provide services--Special Ed and other services--and yet you do not receive the money…Edison can go one-on-one with (special education students and) PARAs. The problem is the Duluth schools pay for that. And that has been frustrating for me to know, because that runs over a million dollars. In fact, a few years ago it was $1.8 million…that’s a lot of teachers that ISD 709 could provide. And it’s frustrating for me, because I think it’s going to keep going on until someone finally says, “Hey! Wait a second! Why aren’t they an elected Board?”
Where to begin?
Charter schools are set up differently than traditional public schools. Charter schools, for example, can’t own property. An affiliated entity owns the building and property and Charter schools have to lease. My understanding is that this arrangement came about because the State of Minnesota, the first State in the nation to approve Charter schools, didn’t want to be on the hook for a bunch of property if the experiment went south.
Tischer Creek Duluth Building Company is the nonprofit entity that owns the buildings Edison charter leases. Paul Goossens is President of TCDBC’s Board of Directors, and often speaks publicly for the organization.
Despite Judy S.-P.’s fraught insinuations, at the time of the Central sale debate, I sensed Edison Charter was quite confident it could satisfy all environmental concerns about the property on which it was also considering building (a site called ‘Snowflake,’ on Rice Lake Road.) During the March 22, 2016 school board meeting, when Edison’s offer for Central was first publicly revealed, Mr. Goossens actually asked the question, “So why this offer now?” himself.
He explained that his organization had received numerous inquiries from the public, questioning why it wasn’t purchasing the vacated Central property. He said there were many reasons for Edison owning Central, but “categorized them into three.”
He described his first point as philosophical: “Central was constructed and financed by the taxpayers of the City of Duluth for public education purposes, and charter schools are public school entities. (This sale) would return the building to its original intent.” Next, he pointed out “the financial benefits (of the sale) to district 709 and the taxpayers,” and his third point was that Edison would be able “to avoid the development impacts at Snowflake, including removal of trees, mitigation of wetlands--things we’d be doing very responsibly…So, though we’re very content to construct a facility that meets Edison’s needs at Snowflake…as a community partner, committed to enhancing the public good, we’re bringing the current proposal (for Central high school) to this Board…”
Edison did not seem to doubt it would be able to build on the Snowflake property, but did seem sensitive to the fact that doing so would be somewhat invasive. I believe the charter school’s gesture was genuinely motivated by a belief that its offer was in the best interest of everyone, including ISD 709. Convinced buying Central, rather than building, was the wisest use of community resources, the organization simply wanted to come forward and make one more (very fair) offer, before moving on with its building plans.
Would Duluth have gotten a better decision from Edison if its Board were elected? First of all, it’s a moot point. Charter schools don’t have a local district, so it isn’t even possible to have an local election. Edison’s Board would have to be elected through a State-wide election. Theoretically an election should matter in a democracy, but would it really matter in Duluth? I would very much like to hear anyone try to make a credible argument the interest of our town would be well-served by replicating the boardroom of ISD 709 on Edison’s campus.
Edison runs a very sensible, fiscally-balanced organization. I can only horrifically imagine what would happen if Judy Seliga-Punkyo’s style of democracy would swoop in and take over the place. Before long, Edison would be blasting into the headwaters of Tischer Creek and putting in an eight-lane swimming pool. The News Tribune would “inform” everyone that it’s already paid for through SAVINGS. All the permitting issues over wetlands would likely also disappear overnight as Duluth’s establishment started parroting all the wonderful benefits for the children of Red Plan II.
As far as unfunded mandates go, Judy complained incessantly about them throughout her eight years on the Board, to what effect? And her claim that ISD 709 pays for one-on-one PARA support for Edison’s special education students is not supported by the facts. Special Education is probably the most complicated part of our amazingly complex public education system. Few people outside education circles are aware that Minnesota is a birth-21 special education State. School districts are obligated to identify all special needs children within their contiguous geographic areas from birth and include them in their special education plans until the age of 21, even if they attend a charter or nonpublic school.
Much of the money that ISD 709 pays to other schools for special education services is reimbursed by the State, and it is not true that ISD 709 pays Edison enough to provide one PARA professional for each special education student. In fact, as Edison’s Head of School, Bonnie Jorgenson, put it in a document she sent to the Board of ISD 709: “It would cost ISD 709 the same--even more--to provide these services themselves.” In 2015, ISD 709 paid Edison $1,569,109 for special education, but the charter school had to draw $2,690177 out of its budget for the services it actually provided.
Almost all the people who spoke out against selling Central to Edison were inside power players. If you hang around the school district for a while, you quickly learn Duluth is run by a tightly-knit little power clique. The President of ISD 709’s primary booster club--the PTSA (once known as the PTA)--Zandy Zweibel, called the Board’s vote against the sale “a brave stance.” Ms. Zweibel was one of the power players who spoke out publicly in the boardroom against selling Central to Edison:
“Why is…this school is going to be built, anyway?…” Ms. Z.-Z. asked. “We don’t have a need for a third high school. So supporting this sale, pushing this forward--I am not in support of this particular sale. Frankly I am not in support of a third high school…”
As it pursued a permit to build on its Rice Lake Road property, Edison first ran into a roadblock with the Duluth Wetland Conservation Act Technical Evaluation Panel. Edison met with this panel in December of 2015 and March of 2016. The panel convened for deliberation on the matter on May 2, 2016. After deliberating, the panel recommended Land Use Supervisor, Keith Hamre, deny Edison’s request to use the wetlands site, which he did on May 18th. Edison’s next step was to appeal to the Duluth Planning Commission, which is chaired by none other than: Zandy Zweibel.
I don’t know if this situation technically constituted a conflict of interest, but it certainly has the feel of a death row inmate having his or her appeal heard by one of the prosecution’s chief witnesses. And if that wasn’t enough to make Edison’s heart quail, the city attorney that advises the Duluth’s Planning Office is none other than Board member Nora Sandstad’s husband, Nate LaCoursiere. Member Sandstad cast one of the four votes against ISD 709 negotiating with Edison.
The Snowflake site on Rice Lake Road is quite sensitive ecologically. The Technical Evaluation Panel raised concerns that Edison’s high school might have “direct or indirect impacts that may destroy or diminish the wetlands” and wouldn’t minimize those impacts “by limiting the degree or magnitude of the wetlands activity.” Edison “did not demonstrate to the local government unit’s satisfaction that there were not other sites in the general area that would accommodate a project of this magnitude.”
Wetlands are invaluable parts of the ecosystem and most people would be inclined to want to err on the side of caution. It is impossible to judge, without expertise, the legitimacy of the panel’s decision and the planning commission’s rejection of Edison’s appeal of that decision. Assumingly, however, Mr. Goossens is quite knowledgeable on the subject and he doesn’t share the panel’s opinion. In a recent press release, he stated unequivocally that Edison’s plan for the Snowflake site “met, and indeed, far exceeded, statutory requirements of the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act.”
I have no evidence to charge that the teachers’ union’s hatred of all things Edison and the fact that Duluth is ruled by a DFL/union coalition, or that the husband of one of the Board members who opposed negotiating with Edison over the sale of Central is the City attorney who advises the Planning Office, or that the PTSA President who publicly opposed Edison opening a third public high school is also the Chair of the Planning Commission had any effect on decisions regarding Edison, yet who can deny at least the appearance of a stacked deck?
Can a fair hearing exist in a such political climate? I think it’s a fair question.
The powers-that-be won another round and got their way. I unabashedly applaud any genuine effort to protect the environment, but lurking under a professed concern for our ecosystem, I believe there was a political agenda. Zandy Zweibel called me out during the last public meeting, concerning Edison:
“Mr. Martell just said it perfectly, himself: we’re already a 1000 students less (than the Red Plan predicted,) and still dropping. That, to me, indicates that we don’t have a need for a third high school.”
What I said was twisted out of context. The point I made was that ISD 709’s enrollment is 1000 students below Red Plan projections because the Red Plan is a failure. All the money spent on Ridiculous Red failed to make ISD 709 competitive in the educational marketplace. Asked during the last campaign about how I felt concerning Edison’s decision to build a new school, I said: “There are people in this town who think they can somehow stop competition. You can’t. If you want to beat your competitors, you have to become competitive.”
Because ISD 709 lost $14.2 million by refusing to sell the Central property to Edison, the school district had to cut its budget, making it even less competitive. The result of these cutbacks will likely mean the student exodus is going to continue with or without a new Edison high school--but Edison’s new school is still coming.
As Mr. Goossens stated in his press release, Edison will “continue to move forward with the unwavering objective of opening a Duluth Edison Charter School high school. This objective is driven by an overwhelming desire…(to) extend (Edison’s) successful K-8 program and culture. The original (Edison) charter was for a complete K-12 program; we are working to fulfill that vision.”
In the same statement, Mr. Goossens was as diplomatic as he could be about the treatment his organization had received from the power players of Duluth: “Regarding the numerous relationships and connections…of those opposed to public school choice, many with power to impact public decisions regarding our development, I will leave any conjecture about the role or impact any person or group may have had to others and the public at large.”
I’ll be more blunt: our leaders--most of them the still-simmering and enterprising Red Planners--ganged up and used every ounce of their political might to stop a competitor for which they harbor an inordinate fear, but once again they will not be able control things as completely as they desire. And all their clever machinations, ultimately, will fail.