Trying for a Soft Landing

by Loren Martell

I may never get around to writing up the regular school board meeting from April, because (as important as that meeting was, with its discussion of the pending budget,) there was another meeting held in the boardroom two days later (4/20/17.) A Committee of the Whole meeting, this gathering of ISD 709’s brain trust was so staggering in its implications I had to move it to the front of the line. 

When can you criticize? 
My eloquent colleague at the Reader, John Ramos, best described the dilemma of trying to get any accountability in our town: “It’s the ‘moving on’ part that bothers me. According to proponents of massive projects in Duluth, there is never a legitimate time for anyone to criticize the projects. If you criticize the projects before they’re built, you’re accused of being a naysayer and an obstructionist, a closed-minded person who won’t give things a chance. But when a project fails or ends up costing a million times more than expected, critics are still not allowed to say anything, because now we’re stuck with it and it’s time to ‘move on.’ Thus does the status quo advance in Duluth: no matter what happens, no criticism of the status quo is legitimate.”

Moving forward, moving on, is the favorite slogan of the cheerleaders. Some school board members frequently use a variation of the moving-on theme in their public speeches, and did again during this disheartening meeting. 
The meeting was called to review an enrollment analysis recently completed by a demographics firm called RSP. The analysis cost us $13,000, plus travel and other reimbursable expenses. The disturbing news is that the study predicts enrollment in our public schools will drop to 7689 in fiscal year 2021/22, nearly 2000 students below the Red Plan’s enrollment projections. The Red Plan’s demographic study predicted: “from 2013 to 2022, enrollment will increase modestly; long-term enrollment will (then) stabilize around 9600 students, 740 per grade.” 

If the Board agrees to throw more of our money its way, RSP will kindly lend its expertise in helping the district draw new boundaries. The new configuration will theoretically address “inefficiencies” in the system. ISD 709 has been left such a lop-sided mess by the Red Plan, however, families may respond by pulling their kids out rather than letting them go to another, underperforming public school. The educational marketplace has grown increasingly competitive over the past decade, making boundary reshaping a delicate maneuver. The strategy actually runs a high risk of accelerating enrollment loss. 

The demographic study recently commissioned by the district shows student numbers remaining fairly stable in middle and high school; the biggest drop is in elementary and kindergarten. This is what Red Plan’s demographer told us, back in 2007: “The good news is the end of the decline is in sight. When looking at (district 709’s) enrollment history, you can see that kindergarten classes are larger than the older elementary grades.” The heading for this part of the Red Plan’s enrollment analysis was called “Light at the End of the Tunnel!” 

Better turn your miners’ lights back on; it’s getting dark again. 
The time has come to think about this, Duluth. Think about what we were told before we invested nearly half a billion ($481 million, with bond interest) in our public school system, and think about where that investment is actually taking us. 
Some of us raised concerns about the demographics way back then. We pointed out that the map supposedly showing student densities (the map the silly mainstream media was portraying as the truth) was so inaccurate it projected population densities partially over Lake Superior. 
The demographer who did the Red Plan demographic study, Hazel Reinhardt, was recently called to task in an article published 4/12/17 in the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “St. Paul Public Schools is preparing for a substantial decline in enrollment, just two years after an unduly sunny report. In January, 2015, demographer Hazel Reinhardt predicted the (St. Paul) district would gain about 2200 students in the coming decade…” But, now, in actuality, the reverse is coming true and “the district expects to lose 2200 students in the next ten years, in addition to the 1000 St. Paul lost in the last two years. The district should (now, theoretically) have 33,000 students by 2016, (the inerrable demographer, Ms. Reinhardt) told the Board Tuesday. Her previous report (from just two years earlier) projected 38,200 (students) by 2024.” 

Can we criticize, yet? 

RSP did an enrollment analysis for ISD 709 two years ago. You can guess my faith in the company’s numbers by the title of my Reader article about it: “Less Rain Predicted (but don’t count on it.)” Last time, the company claimed “projection accuracy of 97% or greater.” This time, it had a flasher graphic, showing a dart stuck into a target bull’s-eye. Their accuracy claims were broken down into four categories: Elementary School, 93.1% accuracy, Middle School, 98%, High School, 97.2%, and the district overall, 95.5%. The company said these numbers were from the second projected year of the 2014/15 study. 

The company’s five-year projection from two years ago varies by 515 students from its projection for the same year (2019/20) this time around. As of this moment in time, the Red Plan’s analysis is off by 1500 students, and all trends indicate it will be off by (at least) 2000 students in five more years. The fact that RSP just had to adjust its five-year projection by 515 students was not a confidence-builder that we’re in better hands. 

(How do you break into the demographics racket? I thought only weather forecasters could be consistently wrong and still keep their jobs.)
Exactly the same way our school board was wowed by all the fancy graphics and claims of Johnson Controls and other “experts” during the Red Plan’s sales pitch, some members seemed immediately ready to forge ahead with the next two phases of RSP’s plan for adjusting to the realities of Red Plan errors: option #1, $6000 for a district “boundary analysis,” and option #2, $31,500 to “facilitate a boundary process.” The whole package, including the work already done, adds up (at this point) to $50,500, plus travel costs and other reimbursable expenses, as well as intangibles alluded to in the fine print of the agreement: “the above breakdown does not include the cost of all expenses associated with the final production of the work and the Deliverables.” 

The Board is set to vote on RSP’s proposal on Wednesday, the 26th, and Duluth has seen this movie before. Member Loeffler-Kemp, renowned for her positive, can-do attitude, seemed especially impressed and rearing to go: 
“One thing that stuck out (from RSP’s presentation/sales pitch) was the importance of having an outside company doing it (taking charge) because of the biases that can play when its done locally or internally. So--I take that to heart. And I certainly want to--as we discuss this as a Board--when we go forward, to look at an organization or company that has had success and a positive outcome for the communities that you’ve worked in, and has a track record. And certainly, as a community organizer, I know communities can respond a lot of different ways…And I think we, as Board members, you know, we have our different communities that we talk to, but this process is a lot more comprehensive and I appreciate how it’s kind of laid out right now. And I’m looking forward to that conversation about moving forward…” 

Some city hall power players and a small cluster of regular citizens were in attendance. After the meeting, one citizen said to me: “They (the Board) are trying to look for a solution; that’s something, isn’t it?” 
All of us, of course, should be in favor of finding a solution to our public school district’s chronic quagmire, but Duluth citizens obviously have ample justification to be skeptical about blindly following any more demographers or an “outside company” touting flashy promises and claims. And, further, this “solution” is missing a very important element: a mea culpa. Somehow the public of Duluth is supposed to pay out more dough and embark down another path, without district leadership ever admitting it played hardball politics and jammed this mess down our throats to begin with. 

Local journalist-hero, Marshall Helmberger, was recently quoted in the alternative Twin Cities publication, City Pages. He expressed a similar criticism of the movers and shakers who fell for Johnson Controls’ consolidation hustle in the St. Louis County school district: “Looking back at the St. Louis County experience,” Helmberger, owner of the Timberjay Newspaper, “fingers a confederacy of moneyed interests and individual egos that succeeded in deflecting questions and assuaging misgivings. ‘When people questioned the school board and the business manager for what later turned out to be a really bad decision, they just dug in deeper,’ he said. ‘They weren’t big enough people to admit they’d made a mistake.’”

The weird thing is: the public of Duluth is incredibly (I would argue, at times, almost pathologically) NICE and very forgiving. A hat-in-hand mea culpa would do wonders (much more than another round of cheerleading) towards healing the town’s wounds and regaining the public’s trust. 
And besides, who do they think they’re still kidding? The public already knows the truth. The cat is out of the Red Plan bag. Anybody sitting in the boardroom on 4/20/17 who didn’t see that a big mistake had been made can be categorically categorized as one of the movers and shakers of Duluth, still in denial. 

Release all the criticism with a good laugh

The spokesperson for RSP brought the house down with one remark during the question-and-answer session after his presentation. The explosion of sardonic laughter he received must have made him think he’d been much more witty than he was aiming for when he said: “Let me add one thing, probably the most important. There’s a lot of fake news, right? Communication is critical to this. Because if you Google “Cedar Rapids,” and access another project I’ve been working on a lot over the past six months, you would think, based on the news media outlet, that we were gonna build 13 brand new buildings in five years. That’s not possible, right?”

You wouldn’t think so, would you? 
Some of us nearly fell out of our seats. The fact that the company that is supposedly going lead us out of this mess didn’t even know that Duluth had just done this precisely (seemingly impossibly) foolish thing was, alone, a disqualifier in my book. 
In contrast to the cheer-leady DFL-endorsed, Board member Oswald asked some tough questions: “In 2007-08, we did update our 13 buildings and rebuilt them all in five years. We went through a process very similar to this, and now, it’s barely ten years later, and you’re proposing to redo that process…How is this going to be different than what we’ve already done in our recent past?”

“First--” the spokesman for RSP replied, “we were not involved in your last plans. So, that could be good or that could be bad. Probably good, from the things we’ve heard from people. But, what the difference is, things have changed, right? You made certain assumptions back then, and so you did these certain steps, based on what you knew. What the hope in this is: that we’ve looked under every stone. We’ve tried to figure out what the reality is for your moment. Our data translates into what the capacity of your buildings are…So we have some knowns. We know what your budget situation is like. We haven’t heard anyone say you’re gonna have more money. Particularly if you’re decreasing (enrollment,) you’re gonna have less money, right? So, with all those knowns, you are looking at some of the things--you’re seeing the stresses with how you can do what you need to do, right? The last few years, I think you’ve been having to make cuts, right? So, the idea behind this plan is that if you’re an airplane (a big, Red jumbo-bus,) you’re trying to have a soft landing, so when we get down the road five, ten years, it’s not like you fell off the cliff…”

I don’t know about the rest of Duluth, but after listening to this, I felt very reassured about just blowing half a billion bucks. 
After bringing the house down (and likely thinking he has a promising future as a stand-up comedian, should his demographics gig ever go south,) the RSP spokesperson continued speaking into the still-rippling peals of laughter: “Having a communications plan that the district is responsible for--to push things out, whether it’s through the web site or social media--that is so critical, because when we’re talking about the things that the process would go through, with potentially closing buildings or looking at grade configurations, efficiency, optimization, how different programs would be integrated in, we have to be transparent. We have to be sure that people understand the message of what the district is embarking on. And it’s not to disrupt people or to create change; it’s because there’re things that you can’t control any longer and you have to do something different.”

Even in mollified, Minnesota-Nice Duluth, selling the idea of possibly closing buildings the public is still paying a half-billion dollar debt on may require more than communication--a slick pr campaign--it may require hypnotism. But don’t worry, Duluth, the process will be quite pleasant. We’ll have the hypnotist set up a booth for pesky contrarians at the Think Kids meetings. It’ll only take a few minutes and all the stress will just fade away from your minds. It’ll be like falling into a soft feather bed with silken sheets. 

Your minds will be so cleansed of skepticism afterwards, you’ll even walk away convinced our school district will be able to swiftly sell all its new “excess” properties for big money! 
In an email exchange with another Duluth media person who was also at the meeting, I wrote: “Wasn’t it staggering to hear lectures about all the inefficiencies in our school buildings after running up a $481 million debt we’re still paying off--a plan sold on “right-sizing” our schools and saving millions through educational and operational efficiencies? To be given an enrollment projection 2000 students below Red Plan projections, after all the expense and disruption this town has been through, borders on criminality.”

After sitting through this meeting, I was more certain than ever that this city should be moving forward with a lawsuit. In the meantime, it’s a pity we don’t have the half billion we blew, in one dollar bills. It would make a nice, big, soft pile we could land into.