How Do You Solve This Problem?

by Loren Martell

Duluth Central High School. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Duluth Central High School. Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

Author’s note: Some of the school board issues in this article were rehashed (and a few decisions made) during the regular May meeting, which Loren will cover next week. 

The mess our school district finds itself in (after all the money it’s spent) is the dumbest, most self-flagellating predicament I’ve ever seen any government body in, first hand. The school board’s May (5/8/17) Human Resources Committee meeting lasted about 15 minutes. The Business Committee meeting lurched on and on into the twilight of evening--three hours, thirty-seven minutes--as our representatives tried to figure out some way to make the fiscal (and physical) wreck the Red Plan left us with, work.

The numbing numbers
   
There were three major issues on the Business Committee meeting’s agenda. The first was a discussion about how to proceed with RSP, a consultant the district recently hired to do an demographics analysis. During a special meeting called to decide whether or not to hire RSP to conduct a school boundary analysis and “facilitate” a process to adjust district boundaries to the new reality, some Board members vacillated and the matter was tabled. 

During this meeting, the Superintendent said a few Board members had requested he make “some comments about each of the schools and what (RSP’s) numbers meant.” 
Mr. G. passed around a handout of “notes” he’d put together for each school. The “in-use” capacity of each school was included. “In-use” he defined as school rooms that weren’t currently being used “for something else, like Kid Connection, or Head Start or some specific use, like art.” 
Congdon Elementary is the only school with an over-capacity issue. The capacity for the school (based on an average of 25 students in a class) is 600. The Superintendent informed the Board that “there is currently 611 (students) at Congdon, give or take, it changes quite a bit. (The school) has gained about 60 students over the course of this year. So that number’s crept up on us a bit…We need to reduce the number of students at Congdon.” He said, adding that “the management (of a lower number) would be easier.” 

A lot of the other schools have the opposite problem; they are under-capacity in terms of enrollment. “Home croft (Elementary) has room for additional students--quite a few, actually.” The Superintendent told our Board. “Lakewood Elementary is also well under capacity, far enough under capacity that we’ve had to spend additional funding on that building, up to two F.T.E.’s (full-time teacher positions) more than would (normally) be generated by the (student/teacher) ratio of that school…If you have 45 1st graders, that’s certainly not one class, so it has to be two…So if there were more students, we would have more efficiency with staffing.” 

Mr. G. worked down through his list, pointing out school after school well below the capacity it was built for, schools that were built by running up a bill of $481 million, a bill Duluth taxpayers are still paying off. One of the most trenchant remarks he made was in regard to Lincoln Park Middle School, which has an in-use capacity of 1089, but is looking at an actual enrollment of 668: “Lincoln Park, as you can see, has about 300 students less than Ordean East (Middle School) does, and at this rate, Congdon (Elementary,) could end up larger than Lincoln, if the pattern keeps going the way it is.” 

One of nine elementary schools, Congdon, with about half the maximum in-use capacity, could end up with more students than Lincoln Park, one of two middle schools we just constructed (Lincoln Park, alone, cost more than $50 million,) if things keep going “at this rate.” 
How in the world did our school board screw up so badly?
I can actually answer that question: a bad process. The public was denied a vote and the microphone was turned off in the boardroom. Agenda meetings were held in secret. Board members who wouldn’t cooperate with the swimming pool stampede were censured and ganged up on. 
Furthermore, the power players controlling the Board gullibly believed all the carnival barking from an “expert” corporate hustler. They actually swallowed all the hyperbolic bunk about a long-range facilities plan--“already half paid for!”--that would “lay out what’s occurring in the district for years into the future. (A plan) that will right-size the district’s square footage to what is needed for planned enrollment (and) help those who maintain facilities use district resources wisely.” 

Further still, they hired someone who’d gotten a 2% favorable leadership rating from the public in his previous job, someone who’d received a 66% vote of no-confidence from the teachers’ union, someone the Board of Education of another bitterly divided town was considering paying off, just to get rid of. They gave this serial consolidator carte blanche power to storm in here, run up a bill of half a billion dollars based on one mediocre demographics study, and storm out again. 

In other words, Duluth, we were subjected to bad government, and bad government invariably leads to bad decisions and bad outcomes. 
 
At least a little gun shy, now

Of the four DFL-endorsed majority members, Nora Sandstad is the only one who ever exhibits any real independence from the dictates of Administration. Recently, Sandstad has demonstrated some appropriate leeriness about the process being driven around another demographics study. During this meeting, I half-expected to pick up some sign that she was bending to administration’s wishes and coming around to the usual 4-3 rubberstamp, but she continued to hold firm: 

“I’m going to reiterate what I said (previously,) and agree with member Johnston to some extent. I think this (analysis of demographics and boundaries) is one piece of a larger discussion that we need to be having as a district and as a community, and--to put it bluntly--I don’t think RSP is the group to facilitate (that larger discussion.)” Sandstad pointed out that the company hadn’t yet even updated the timing of its project: “They haven’t provided us with an updated statement reflecting the right timing for anything, and that’s something that you would do--it’s a key portion of attention to detail.” She added that “some things were missing in the presentation that they gave. Certainly this proposal doesn’t cover the issues of inequity and other sort of ‘soft’ divisions in our community that have nothing to do with boundaries.” She said she didn’t believe RSP would provide “the right opportunity to start that discussion…I think we should be looking more to our local community leaders outside of the district to facilitate a larger discussion on the larger issues: the communication issues, the reputation issues.” 

The discussion about how to proceed with that discussion went on for a long time, but unless administration can somehow convince member Sandstad to climb on board, the best it’s likely to get is a 4-3 vote approving option #2 of RSP’s proposal: $6000 for a boundary analysis. 
Personally I think we, as taxpayers, would realize more benefit from our six grand to have them analyze why the first analysis done for the Red Plan was so shoddy and screwed up. Of course that may require some Freudian analysis of Keith Dixon. 
 
Mashed-up by mulch

One of the other agenda items that engendered lengthy debate during this Business Committee meeting was what to do about the rubber mulch in district playgrounds. This issue has been plaguing the Board for several months, and today it received an estimate on cost from a consultant. As it always seems to happen whenever ISD 709 deals with consultants, the price had escalated: $1.2 million dollars to remove the rubber mulch and replace it with wood chips. 

The shock waves from this expense rattled Board members, though not as much as I thought it would. Most members seemed more upset that the project would take three years to complete, as this quote from member Sandstad illustrates: “I’m really disappointed in the time-frame, here. Disappointed that we didn’t move this quicker, as a district, since we had our first vote on this nearly a year ago. I’m also disappointed that Board members insisted on giving options (on the project’s time-frame,) instead of just going forward with a one-year proposal. I think this is unacceptable…I don’t like the price tag, but it’s not the price tag that bothers me nearly as much as the timing, and all of the postponements and delays.” 

I continued to be hung up on the price tag. $1.2 MILLION? Are the wood chips laminated with gold? The million dollar sticker shock even shook up the usually staid editorial page of the News Tribune: “The cost in 2008 was estimated at $385,000. That rose to $630,000 when school board members took their vote and the district then sought bids. This week, the lowest bid to replace the rubber chips on 10 school playgrounds came back at an eye-popping $1.2 million.” 

The price did pop open the eyes of a few Board members, and the conversation got a bit heated at times, prompting Business Committee Chair Harala to admonish her fellow colleagues almost like a school marm scolding third graders: “It’s a frustrating number. I can feel the frustration. Let’s all collectively agree that it’s frustrating. It’s a frustrating process. Period…So, that being said, let’s keep this centered on our kids and the safety of our kids, for their air quality and the quality of their lives. We will center on that (concern) for the rest of this discussion. And (I’m warning all you children, discussing children,) we’ll (just turn this car around) and end this discussion, if this continues to be uncivil.” 

Board members were of course justified in expressing outrage on behalf of the taxpayers of Duluth: a MILLION DOLLARS to reconfigure playgrounds we just built and are still paying off? I fully supported member Johnston when he displayed a bit of umbrage at this inflated price tag.
Mr. Johnston started by venting irritation that no contractors had expressed interest in a more-expedited time-line; they all wanted to do the job over three years. He said he would have told them, ‘See ya!’” As an engineer, Johnston said he’d put out bids “that were way over what my prediction was, and my (boss) told me to sit on the phone and find people to do it or change my design, so it’s affordable. None of this happened, here!” He said the price often comes down to the way a project is designed. “You tell the designer to, ‘Get your act together!’ That’s what we have to do, here.” 

Still venting frustration on behalf of his constituents, Mr. Johnston pointed out that when the public learns it is going to pay this big bucket of money “to remove mulch, we’re going to be laughed (more likely, jeered) at!” He called the price tag a “rip-off. He told the consultant in charge of the project--SAS & Associates--to go back and look at the designer and the contractors, and get them “to figure out how to get a better price.” He said some community members had done their own research in regard to the mulch project, suggesting the price should be “a fraction of what we’re talking about, here.” He called the price “outrageous,” and said the Board should turn to the community for commonsense ideas. 

To flesh out the community discussion, I’m actually going to quote from the News Tribune again. Lamenting that “estimates have come back at more than triple the originally talked-about price,” our august paper pointedly asked: “can our Duluth school board please do the right thing by taxpayers and take a step back on replacing rubber mulch on school playgrounds--at least until the science is there to tell us if the stuff is even a problem?” In the meantime, the paper advised the district to “make sure students are washing their hands…” and instructed educators to “stress to children not to chew on the rubber pieces they find beneath their feet.” 

TELLING kids not to put something in their mouths has of course been well proven to be a foolproof strategy over the ages. As much as I agree with the paper’s disgust over the price of the mulch project, especially for a broke school district, its editorial page once again completely misjudged the depth and complexity of the issue. 

The stuff is also dusty. As member Harala said, there is also an air-quality issue. Not to get too gross, kids have black boogers after playing in it. What parents would want to wait around to see whether or not their children are breathing in some nasty poison that might ruin their health down the road? Can anyone imagine how filled with righteous rage they will be if it does turn out to be harmful? Parents understandably don’t want to take the risk. They want the rubber crap OUT, which puts our Board in a real bind.

After all the nastiness of the Red Plan, our Duluth school board labors under a constant, dark, disreputable cloud. Members are genuinely worried if they let the public down again, this could be the final nail in the coffin. They feel they have to somehow deal with the mulch issue, and that they have to do it soon, or ISD 709’s already precarious enrollment numbers may plummet into a downward death spiral. 

Figuratively speaking, by the time our poor, hapless Board came out of this part of the meeting with nothing yet resolved, members looked all scuffed-up and sooty, like they’d been playing in rubber mulch. 
 
More debt

Space is always a problem trying to cover these marathon meetings. If you’re looking for multiple quotes from the discussion of the last major issue the Board grappled with during this business meeting, the video is on youtube. If you are bed-ridden with two broken legs and absolutely no other interests in life, you might want to watch it. Otherwise my limited-space synopsis will have to suffice. 

Here is this incredible scenario in a nutshell: Not many months ago, Many Rivers Montessori offered to buy Rockridge Elementary School from the district for nearly a million dollars. The four DFL-endorsed Board members, tightly aligned with the Duluth Federation of Teachers’ union, refused to sell to a “competitor.” The Montessori school was actually only minimally competitive in terms of enrollment; most of its students are three years old or younger. It is actually licensed as a daycare facility. 

The DFL-endorsed dug their heels in though and told us they were looking out for the district’s “long-term interest.” 
Unable to sell property and feeling the heat, they next decided to move the Woodland Hills Academy into the Rockridge site. Woodland Hills actually owned the old Cobb school, another building abandoned by the district in the nineties. District 709, responsible for educating the kids in the Woodland Hills facility, was leasing part of the building for that purpose. The Cobb facility needed some renovations, so Woodland Hills decided to jack up the lease, to pay for those facility improvements. Instead of paying the higher rent, ISD 709 decided to reverse the arrangement: move W. H. into the Rockridge facility and lease the part of the building not used as an educational facility to them. 

In order to do that, ISD 709 now has to renovate Rockridge, at a price the Board discovered during this meeting has now climbed to $3 million. ISD 709 is broke, so it has to borrow the money. Administration is recommending selling a five-year bond, leveraged primarily against the district’s already woefully inadequate building maintenance fund. About $800,000 a year will be forfeited from the fund from 2018 through 2022, to make debt payments. About another $130,000 a year will be appropriated out of the General Fund. 

The most amazing subtext to this story is that Many Rivers Montessori is now set to buy the old Cobb school! The competitor that the DFL was protecting us from is simply buying another one of our abandoned schools, so we gained absolutely nothing by not selling to them in the first place. 
This Business Committee meeting was brutal. Even the perusal of a swimming pool management contract, at the very end, wasn’t without friction--though the district’s new CFO, Doug Hasler, tried to give the atmosphere a buoyant boost by joyfully exclaiming that we’ve got “some outstanding pools in this school district!”

The Red Plan did leave us with magnificent swimming pools.