I’ll Start (and end) with the News Tribune

by Loren Martell

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

I’m back, which means I again lost in my attempt to punish myself by “winning” a spot on the school board. I knew my goose was cooked in this race when the Duluth News Tribune blamed me and Harry Welty for the exodus of students from ISD 709. 
According to our paper of record, the way forward to a “positive” future for our school district is to completely ignore how it got into the mess to begin with. 
Of course the Duluth News Tribune wants you to forget about the Red Plan. The paper wants you to forget it for the same reason the DFL, the unions, the Chamber of Commerce, Superintendent Gronseth and the rest of the establishment of Duluth want you to forget it: they’re all part of the ruling cadre which fell for this ill-advised scam and led you down the primrose path to begin with. 

Harry Welty and I are responsible for the loss of students from ISD 709? There’s a saying about people in glass houses throwing stones. 
The long-forgotten public

The thing you never hear from the establishment of Duluth is any empathy for the general citizenry. The people of this town got ripped off, and none of the ruling elite has shown any concern about it. Because mistakes were admitted to in the St. Louis County school district, the public got some help. After the conniving corporate behemoth, JCI, pulled another of its big “savings” swindles, representative Tom Bakk managed to channel two million dollars a year of taconite tax money towards providing some debt relief for his iron range constituents. 

I think it is reprehensible that the State of Minnesota is forced to pay two million dollars a year to help pay down a burdensome levy (I should say, another burdensome levy) the corporate crooks left in their wake. I hate the idea of the State having to pony up cash to pay off these something-for-nothing scams, and wish Minnesota could again find the courage it showed in its fight with the tobacco giants. I think the corporate thieves who are preying on education should be prosecuted for setting up schemes that over promise and under deliver. 

That said, had I been elected, I would have fought like the devil for the State to help out here, as well. 
Some school board members (and district administrators) believe the interest of the general public and the district are opposed. This attitude has led to strong arm politics and an unwillingness to admit the truth. Admitting the truth to the your constituents begins by admitting it to yourself. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, the incumbent DFL/union-endorsed 1st district candidate, has been on the Board for four years and has been Chair of the Business Committee. I’ve spent many hours watching and listening to her, and I don’t believe she understands any aspect of a multi-million dollar investment.

And that is problematic, because anyone who thinks the chronic fiscal problems plaguing ISD 709 are completely unrelated to the failings of the Red Plan is completely delusional. 
One obvious way to address ISD 709’s financial issues is to liquidate vacant properties as soon as possible for the highest price. During the primary election, both of the DFL-endorsed at-large school board candidates--Sally Trnka and Josh Gorham--stated on the record that they would not alter Board policy in order to sell district property to other educational organizations. They parroted the same words their DFL-endorsed school board comrades have been preaching about the pitfalls of a “short term gain” and enabling “competitors.” What they didn’t mention is that both are strong union supporters and that their principled stance is also heavily influenced by teacher union opposition to any such sale.

After they refused to sell Central to Edison Charter a year and a half ago, Board members Annie Harala and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp told us all not to worry. “We’ve got new marketing strategies!” They exclaimed. “What strategies?” I asked in this column. The whole exhibition was nothing but more DFL happy talk and spin. 

During the League of Women Voters forum, Josh Gorham went on at length about all the entities (the city, the county, the state, the girl scouts, Star Trek’s fan club, Little Abby’s baking circle…) currently strategizing about what to do with the Central campus. “With all these people working on it,” Mr. Gorham declared, “something’s bound to happen.” 

The question is whether it will happen before the buildings fall down. 
During the League of Women Voters’ forum (which, unfortunately, for some reason, wasn’t even audio-recorded,) the moderator asked candidates where we would--as school board members--make cuts in the budget, to have as little impact as possible on the classroom. This question prompted some interesting remarks. Incumbent at-large school board candidate Harry Welty said that, if he was forced to cut, he’d probably consider axing the district’s P.R. position. 

Sally Trnka strenuously opposed this idea. “I think just the opposite,” she declared, arguing that the district would be best served to step up its P.R. efforts and “promote its story.”
This exchange exemplified the stark contrast of this campaign’s central debate: the DFL-endorsed candidates are convinced the best way to “move forward” is more spin--cheering about all the positive things going on in our public schools--a strategy they are calling “promotion.” The non-DFL-endorsed candidates are advocating that the best way forward is to turn off the spin machine and start speaking frankly and transparently about real problems. 

Just don’t say, “Red Plan!”

The DFL-endorsed have the strongest motive for encouraging Red Plan amnesia: they are the savvy group of boardroom rulers who rubberstamped Keith Dixon’s grandiose scheme to begin with. 
Interestingly, (even though they pushed it through without a vote,) the DFL has always been the group least informed about the Red Plan. None of their current school board candidates know ANYTHING about this huge investment, but what else is new? None of them ever did. After they rubberstamped millions of dollars of additional cost to the Red Plan in 2011, DFL activist Judy Seliga-Punkyo (Chair of the Board) went on the record and declared the extra debt “is not costing taxpayers.” At least she wasn’t technically lying. 

The Red Plan budget overrun is being paid for through two bond issues: the 2012b lease-purchase C.O.P., which appropriates a half million dollar withdrawal from the General Fund every year, and the 2012a lease-levy C.O.P., which is still hanging out there as a future burden for Duluth taxpayers. 
Duluthians are definitely going to get clobbered by this slippery financial arrangement. On a $12.8 million debt, Duluth taxpayers will pay $10.8 million interest during the eight years (2/21-2/28) of debt payment, or 84% of principal. The total bill, with interest, payable in eight years for the 2012a bond is: $23,595,000. The full cost to the taxpayers and the classrooms of ISD 709 from the $19 million Red Plan budget overrun will be: $32,729,917.50. 

Nobody in the leadership of this city wants to know any of these facts; they just want happy talk. Ironically, the people most in denial of reality are educators. The Duluth teachers’ union has been one of the most aggressive groups trying to eradicate anyone who dares to mention the Red Plan. What the union is seeking in this election, as always, is a Board of loyal smiley faces--a Board it can control. 

A few years back (during the ‘13/‘14 negotiations,) the school board actually tried to garner a few reasonable contract concessions, to help bail out a school district that had just narrowly averted statutory operating debt status--a situation caused by all the Red Plan debt being drawn from the General Fund. The Duluth Federation of Teachers, Local 692, pushed back. The union president at the time, Frank Wanner, complained warningly in a 9/13/13 union newsletter that the modest offer put on the table was a betrayal. “Some of the people on the school board are no longer the same people we helped get elected.” Frank told his fellow union members, but it was the Board’s union/DFL-endorsed members who got the message. Virtually no restraint was put on the biggest items: salaries and benefits.

Last spring the Board approved another set of contracts with salary and benefit increases that are going to make life very rough for our fiscally-strapped school district. 
The public is going to get whacked again 

A few months back, Board member Harala profusely thanked member Sandstad for her efforts in lobbying the State to allow the Board to raid the district’s maintenance fund to replace playground rubber mulch with wood chips. This is the fiscal state our school district has fallen into: a shell game. 
71% of the district’s ten-year capital investments for maintenance had already been earmarked to cover $18 million of upgrades on Old Central. Part of the work on the building had been tossed over the side of the boat, so Johnson Controls’ profit wouldn’t be affected by Red Plan cost overruns. “Happens all the time…,” we were told on the News Tribune’s editorial page, “Not surprisingly, (JCI) is meeting budget by shifting money around.”

I’ve never understood how tossing a couple of projects over the side of the boat without any savings for the taxpayers wasn’t surprising. 
At any rate, other district facilities were squeezed by Old Central’s long list of needed repairs in the current ten-year maintenance plan. Subtracting $850,000 for a new roof on Lakewood Elementary left about $6.5 million (or $650,000 a year) to maintain all the other buildings we’ve invested so much of our money in. The Red Plan renovations in Stowe Elementary will be 20 years old in another decade, with very little investment in upkeep. Now, this pittance for maintenance has been raided by the Board not only to pay for playground mulch, but millions more for construction work in Rockridge Elementary--a building we were supposed sell for $1.9 million. 

We have almost NO money left for maintenance. 
The maintenance levy has been varying between $1.39 and $2.57 million the last few years. According to State standards, it should be $5.6 million to adequately protect this huge half billion dollar investment we’ve made in facilities. That levy is non-voter approved, and the district’s CFO told me recently that the Board is going “to have to start thinking about moving towards that ($5.6 million) figure.” 

All the money being raided from the maintenance fund, plus all the money needed for Old Central, combined with a levy far below where it should be adds up to a fiscal time bomb--and another huge liability for the taxpayers of Duluth. Add in the cost of employee contracts and all the money being raided from the General Fund to pay Red Plan debt, and another Red Plan bond lurking in the future, and the taxman is going to come calling, Duluth. And the worst part of it all is that millions more inevitably taken from taxpayers’ pockets will again not go into the classrooms for education. 

Instead of encouraging more denial and happy talk, our paper of record should be the champion of the public--leading the charge to get to real facts and real solutions. 

Look at all the fingers pointing back at you

The Duluth News Tribune’s editorial board apparently forgot to read its own paper before blaming Harry Welty and me for the exodus of students from ISD 709. In a 9/28/14 article, the paper’s education beat reporter broadly grouped all the factors contributing to the loss of ISD 709 student enrollment into one sweeping statement: “The years of student decline can be attributed to many factors, including changing demographics, expanding educational choices and, more recently, the tumult caused by the district’s long-range facilities plan.” 

Former Board member Ann Wasson, one of the most aggressive pushers of the Red Plan, was quoted in the paper on 1/19/11: “I do have concerns with enrollment, but having been educated on the long-range facilities plan (unlike the rest of you motley, unenlightened cretins in this town,) we knew there was going to be a drop. Certainly we’ve lost kids to other places, but we expected that…I’m quite confident we will acquire many students back in the district, when they see what our buildings will offer.” 

ISD 709 has lost 790 more students since Wasson made her prediction. 
On 8/31/10, Keith Dixon blamed the loss of students on “instability.” He was quoted in the News Tribune, claiming, “We’re still going through that period of instability to get to that stability.” 
Still not seeing that stability, Mr. D. The Red Plan predicted enrollment to stabilize at 9600; it dropped to 8116 last June. 
The reason for student loss is obvious: Big Red isn’t working as advertised. The Red Plan has been a fiscal train wreck from its inception, but our local paper ignored reality and kept staunchly backing it. When the paper’s editorial board claimed on 7/23/10 that it looked like the district wouldn’t have “to tap into” an $11 million contingency fund for the Red Plan and another $21 million was “available” from savings, etc.--in other words, the project was $32 million in the black, I called the editorial page editor. I pointed out his paper had reported just one month earlier that the Red Plan was being trimmed back because of cost overruns. I said, “Those numbers can’t be real.” The numbers were proved wrong eleven months later, when the Red Plan’s price tag jumped $15 million. A few months later, the price jumped $4 million more. 

Right before the ‘09 election, the editorial page ran a polemical article entitled, “Do Welty and Gang Really Want a Return to Chaos?” Describing the Red Plan as a “desperately needed and sensible long-range facilities plan,” the paper blasted Harry Welty for wreaking “havoc,” and excoriated Plan B--an alternative plan just approved by the State--including the “blue-ribbon panel” the plan originally contained: “That panel could do little more than continue the battles and debates that have mired the district for decades and even generations. Its work could easily devolve into an unhealthy rehashing and refighting (sic) of all the same arguments considered--and settled--in the creation of the long-range facilities plan…”

I again called the editorial page editor and asked him if he’d looked at Plan B after its review by the State. I told him the MDE had removed the panel from the plan. How much havoc did the paper wreak by spreading this misinformation, just before a pivotal election? 
In the same article, the paper cavalierly dismissed Plan B “because (it) doesn’t include the (Red Plan’s) money-saving building efficiencies and its (sure-to-be successful) liquidation of excess properties…” 
While encouraging everyone not to vote for the two candidates with the most in-depth knowledge of the job they were applying for in this year’s election, the paper graciously admitted that Harry Welty and I “care” about what’s been going on with our school district. Right back at you, Duluth News Tribune: I’m certain our hometown paper of record cares as well, but it’s time the Trib stops pointing fingers and is big enough to admit to its own mistakes. 

After the paper’s latest exhortation, Mr. Welty wrote in his blog: “Perhaps it’s time the editorial board looked in the mirror to find the ugly past.” 

Well said, Harry.